Stage 4 of the Mindfulness of Breathing: Refining Our Attention

In the fourth stage of the four stage mindfulness of breathing meditation practice we work on developing more refinement and vividness in the way we pay attention.

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 breathing.

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

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Paying attention to some rather subtle sensations connected with our breathing 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 notice 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 don’t have to make these sensations be an exclusive focus. They can be a lightly held focal point at the center of a wider field of attention that includes sensations of the breathing from all over the body. When we do this, the vivid sensations we’re now including in our awareness bring a greater sense of clarity to our experience. The sensations at the nostrils can, in a way, “tie everything together.”

It may happen, though, that you become fascinated with the sensations around the nostrils and find yourself being drawn into them more and more. And when this happens you may find that everything else drops away, and you’re in a more “one-pointed” state of awareness.

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:

More About Stage Four

Congratulations! You’ve now learned the full four-stage practice of the Mindfulness of Breathing meditation. You could spend the rest of your life exploring this practice. Sometimes it’ll seem like, as they say, “the same-old, same-old.” But other times you’ll find shifts happening and discover new dimensions of your experience. From time to time I notice whole new layers of sensation that had obviously been there the whole time abut hadn’t noticed.

So spend some time practicing all four stages of the meditation practice, and reviewing what you already know in order to deepen your experience of them.

And explore the links on this page to deepen your understanding of what this stage is about and how to work effectively within the fourth stage.

I recommend alternating the Mindfulness of Breathing practice and the Metta Bhavana, or lovingkindness, practice. Each of these practices feeds into and deepens the other. They balance each other nicely, with the lovingkindness practice helping us to connect with our inner warmth, while the mindfulness of breathing practice is rather “cooler” in tone.

You can do these two practices on alternate days, or even do one in the morning and one in the evening, if you have enough time.

But before you head off to learn another meditation practice we’d suggest that you spent a bit of time familiarizing yourself with this stage of this meditation. Each stage is in itself a practice for developing skills in working with your mind. Really get to notice what’s going on in each of the four stages, and see if you can find ways to get more out of them. Meditating isn’t just an exercise, it’s an exploration.

Simply sticking with the practice is a form of spiritual practice in itself insofar as it encourages the development of patience and acceptance. The mind tends to have a grasping quality, and it’s this grasping, Buddhism tells us, that leads to suffering. The effort of setting aside our craving for new experiences and simply continuing to explore more deeply those practices we are already familiar with will bring us closer to spiritual awakening.

Review of the Practice

In the first stage we worked on calming the mind through focusing on the out-breath, which is intimately connected with a sense of letting go.

The second stage helps bring more energy and awareness into our relaxed mind by focusing our attention on the in-breath, which is inseparably linked to alertness.

The third stage, in which we pay attention equally to the in- and out-breaths blends these two qualities, of alertness and calmness to help us develop a calm, energetic awareness. When our mind is like this (and you may not have got there yet but it will come with practice) it is very “pliable.” In other words our mind has become a very powerful tool.

What we do with this tool in the fourth stage is to develop one-pointed awareness. This isn’t a forced concentration, but rather a natural absorption that is based on interest and even fascination.

Moving from Stage Three to Stage Four

In the third stage of this meditation practice — the Mindfulness of Breathing — you’re usually aware of quite a large area of the sensation associated with the breathing. You may have been focusing primarily on the belly, or the chest, or the sensations in the head and throat, but you may might been aware of all of that, and might even have been aware of the whole body.

In the fourth stage however we’re beginning to narrow our attention down onto a very small area of sensation — 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.

A Nasal Experiment (Best Performed While Alone)

This might sound weird, but have you ever checked to see just how sensitive the rims of your nostrils are? Well, I didn’t expect you were going to admit it!

Try touching the inner rims of your nostrils as gently as you can (check no-one is watching first!). Use the very tip of your finger, and try to find the lightest touch that you can still feel. You should find that you’re able to feel your fingertip almost before it makes physical contact. The rims of your nostrils are covered with tiny little hairs, just a fraction of a millimeter long. Each hair has a very sensitive nerve at the root, and every time your breath passes through your nostrils, these nerves are triggered.

Of course we don’t usually notice those sensations, but it’s an excellent exercise to try to be aware of the breath passing over your nostrils. Having to pay attention to such a refined sensation encourages your mind to move onto a more subtle level of perception.

And since it’s not possible to remain aware of such a subtle sensation unless your mind is very still, the fourth stage encourages deeper levels of mental and emotional stillness.

Moving On to the Next Activity

Stage “Omega”

We’ve talked about “Stage Zero” as being the important preliminary stage where we set up good conditions for meditating by working with our posture and our inner attitudes. I’ve compared it to the stage of mixing the ingredients for a cake, as well as making sure that the oven is at the right temperature. In other words we’re making sure that the conditions are congruent with the outcomes we want to achieve.

But in baking a cake there are also some things you want to do at the end of the baking process to make sure that the cake comes out right. You want to make sure, for example, that you have oven gloves on so that you don’t burn your hands and drop the cake on the floor. You need to check that the cake is in fact properly baked and that it doesn’t need a few more minutes in the oven. You need to place the cake on a rack so that it doesn’t go soggy.

Similar considerations apply in our meditation practice. It’s possible to ruin a perfectly good meditation by hurrying out of the practice. So here are a few tips so help ensure that you are able to carry the effects of the practice into the world, rather than jarring yourself by making an abrupt transition. I call this process of ending the meditation “Stage Omega” because it’s the final stage of the meditation, but isn’t usually enumerated. (You probably know this already, but Omega is the last letter in the Greek alphabet and is often used to represent the last thing in a series.)

Stage Omega is important because you need to give yourself time to absorb the effects of the practice.

I used to talk about “ending the meditation practice,” or “bringing the practice to a close.” (In older recordings you’ll still hear me saying things like that.) But eventually I realized that there was something unhelpful in that language, because it suggests that first we practice, and then we stop practicing. But meditation is about nurturing into existence a certain quality of awareness (mindful, present, centered, kind, and so on). And the entire point of doing this is that it will have a beneficial effect on the rest of our lives. So it’s more helpful to think in terms of “bringing our practice into the world,” or “carrying our mindfulness and kindness into our next activity,” and so on.

One excellent way to approach this is to notice what your experience is like at the end of the period of guidance, when the last bell has rung, or however it is that you know that your chosen meditation time is over. What effect has meditating had on you? How do you feel? How does your body feel? What is your mind doing? How do those things compare to when you first sat down to meditate?

If you don’t pay attention to the effects that the meditation practice has had on your mind and emotions, then you might not realize that any changes have taken place. This can be rather dispiriting, to say the least. Often we develop much more of a sense of calmness than we are consciously aware of, and if we don’t give ourselves time to appreciate this we might immediately undo the positive states that we’ve created by smothering them with despondent or frustrated thoughts and feelings.

Taking your practice into the world

In a way, Stage Omega is not really the end of your meditation, it’s just a transition from being aware with our eyes closed, sitting on a cushion, to being aware, with our eyes open, in the midst of everyday activity. Our meditation practice will hopefully have a beneficial effect on our lives generally, and it’s more likely to do that if we make the transition from sitting meditation to everyday activity as smooth and elegant as possible.

I suggest that you go recall the guidance I offer toward the end of the recordings. Notice how I suggest that you gradually broaden your awareness. At the end of the fourth stage you’re focusing mainly on the subtle sensations at the rims of your nostrils. You can broaden your awareness from that narrow focus to become aware of the whole breathing process. Then you can become aware of the whole of your body, and then you can include other dimensions of awareness such as feeling, emotion, and your mind. And lastly, you can broaden your awareness right out into the world around you, becoming aware of your external sensations of space, sound, touch, and light.

You’re giving yourself time to reconnect with the world in which you will soon be moving around, using computers, interacting with other people, and so on. You’re doing this slowly and gradually, not abruptly.

Actually, it’s very beneficial to go further this and to maintain your mindfulness as you get off your cushion, bow to your shrine (if that’s the sort of thing you do), blow out the candles, straighten up your meditation equipment, and leave the room. And even then you should try to maintain your awareness as you go onto the next activity.

When I’m leading group meditations, I can often tell how someone has been working in their meditation by the way they get up and move around. If they make a lot of noise and the drop their cushions with a loud “whump” at the back of the meditation room then it’s a fair bet that they either haven’t been making much effort or that their effort has been pretty crude and mechanical. If their movements are elegant and they lay their cushions down carefully and quietly, then I have a good idea that they have been working internally with the same kind of grace, balance, and care.

Take your time moving onto the next activity

One very good reason for taking your time coming out of the practice and moving onto your next activity is that it’s possible to become emotionally “jarred” by rushing into the first item on your “to do” list. It’s often the case, as I’ve mentioned above, that you can develop more calmness that you at first realize.

Another quality that you can develop is a greater degree of emotional sensitivity, and if you do not respect this then the first encounter that you have (which is likely to be with someone who has not been meditating and who is in a very different mental state from you) may be very unpleasant. Somehow this is less of a problem when you take just a few minutes to allow the effects of the meditation to sink in.

I don’t know what happens in this process of assimilation, but I suspect that in some way your subconscious mind makes some subtle internal readjustments which allow you to deal more effectively with encounters with others.

If you do give yourself a few minutes at the end of your practice to assimilate your experience, and take your time elegantly making a smooth transition from the cushion to the world, then you will often have the experience of finding that you can meet others who may even be in a very antagonistic state of mind, and be able to calmly absorb the other person’s emotions without even a ripple appearing on the surface of your mind.

If your calmness is like a great lake, then an elephant can jump in and the waters simply close over it. But if your calmness is like a small pool, then when an elephant jumps in there will be such a splash that there will be no water left!

Four Dimensions of Mindfulness

In Buddhism, there are several terms that are translated as mindfulness or are closely related to the concept of mindfulness, and each of them has a different flavor. It’s useful to get to know the different dimensions of mindfulness.

1. Sati

Sati most simply means “recollection”, both in the sense of memory (“I recollect that you said you wanted to meditate”) and in the sense of “having gathered together once more” (“I had to recollect myself after a busy day”).

Sati is the aspect of mindfulness that knows what is going on at any particular time. For example, when we’re aware of our posture, and that we’re in a certain mood, and that our mind is alert or dull, then this is sati. Sati is a state of watchfulness in which we’re paying attention to what’s going on right here and now. When we’re being mindful in this way we’re aware of the sensations of the body, of our feelings, and of our thoughts.

The opposite of sati is distraction (asati), which can involve the mind flitting from thought to thought without any internal monitoring. This is one of the most common forms of distractedness, and one that every meditator experiences. The mind goes wandering, and often it’s hard afterward to say where it’s been and what it’s been doing. Asati can also involve a fixation on one task — but a fixation that ignores our general experience. When we’re working hard on some project and find that our neck is tense, our shoulders are aching, and we’re in a bad mood, this is usually a sign that we’ve been focused in a rather driven and unmindful way on what we’ve been doing.

Usually when people talk about “being in the moment” they’re talking about sati.

Sati is knowing what is going on in our experience right now, and we need to know this in order to be able to make any meaningful changes. If you don’t know where you are, how can you get to where you want to go?

2. Sampajañña

Sampajañña is the aspect of mindfulness that extends over a period of time. It includes an awareness of purpose (where we want to go), and an awareness of where we’ve already been. So you may sit down to meditate and be aware that you need to cultivate lovingkindness. When you do that you’re developing a sense of where you want to go. This is rather different from what people think of when they think of mindfulness as “being in the moment” and “letting go of the past and future.” Sampajañña allows us to mindfully think about the future. Having decided where we want to go, we then check in with ourselves from time to time during the meditation. This is employing sati to see what’s going on. Sampajañña compares where we are with where we want to go — in this case evaluating “am I making progress in cultivating lovingkindness?”

Sampajañña also looks backwards in time. When you’re recalling your day and thinking about how things went, it’s possible to do this in a mindful way. Rather than the mind simply getting lost in thoughts about the past we’re consciously and mindfully recalling events. We can remind ourselves of our successes and analyze our lapses. Again, this is very different from what a crude understanding of “being in the moment” might suggest. With sampajañña we can bring the past — mindfully — into the moment. We can be in the moment and thinking about the past.

Often in Buddhist texts, the terms sati and sampajañña are joined together into one compound term, sati-sampajañña, and it’s this compound term that’s often translated as “mindfulness”. Sampajañña is necessary so that we can periodically compare where we are going with where we want to be. Sampajañña is like the compass that gives us our bearings.

3. Dhamma-vicaya

Dhamma-vicaya is the aspect of mindfulness that categorizes our experience in terms of some model or another. An important aspect of meditation is learning ways to categorize our distractions (the hindrances) as well as positive qualities that we can develop in meditation (the dhyana factors). Dhamma-vicaya is the act of comparing our inner experience to a mental map, so that we can navigate more effectively towards our goal.

The simplest kind of map you can have is something like a division of your emotional states into “positive” (those states that are constructive and helpful, like love, empathy, confidence) and “negative” (those that tend to be destructive, like hatred, addictive craving, cynicism).

This can be developed, however, into a much more sophisticated way to work with our mental states. There are, for example, traditional lists of “hindrances” that we can experience in meditation. These are distracted mental states that cause us suffering: states that include restlessness and anxiety, laziness and sleepiness, doubt, sensual craving, and ill will. Dhammavicaya can be a form of diagnosis, allowing us to evaluate more precisely what’s going on. There are also of course lists of positive mental states that arise in meditation, like the dhyana factors of initial thought, sustained thought, rapture, joy, and one-pointed concentration. Again Dhammavicaya can be indispensable in evaluating our current state.

Perhaps the simplest form of dhamma-vicaya is the insight meditation technique of “noting,” in which we internally “name” to ourselves the most prominent aspect of our experience. We might say “in, out” as we observe the breathing, or we might saying “throbbing” as we observe an area of pain.

To fully develop our dhamma-vicaya into an effective tool we need to have an effective inner map, which involves learning from study and from experience the different mental states that can arise, and also learnng to recognize these in our experience. If you don’t know what the five hindrances are or can’t recognize them when they arise, then you won’t be able to use them as a diagnostic tool, for example.

4. Appamada

Appamada is mindfulness in the sense of watchfulness or vigilance. It’s mindfulness imbued with a sense of the importance of the task in hand. Some texts say that if you lose your mindfulness you should grab it up again like a soldier in the heat of battle who has dropped his sword. Another interesting analogy is that we should act as swiftly as someone who has discovered that his or her hat is on fire. Appamada is the dynamic aspect of mindfulness.

All of these aspects of mindfulness work together synergistically. To some extent we may have to develop them separately, but in order to develop one fully we have to develop the others.

It’s not always easy to separate out these different kinds of mindfulness, and that’s not really the point of my letting you know about them. If you’re aware of yourself and of your thoughts, emotions, and sensations, and at the same time you’re automatically aware of whether you’re in a hindrance or whether positive factors are present, and if you’re vigilantly coming back to awareness every time your experience wanders, then probably sati, sampajañña, dhamma-vicaya, and appamada are all present. There’s not much to be gained by trying to work out where one dimension of mindfulness ends and another starts. But if one of these is lacking then it’s important to be able to recognize that. If you’re aware of where you are but don’t have a sense of purpose, then it’s probably worthwhile cultivating sampajañña. If your mindfulness is bit vague then perhaps you need to start noting exactly what’s going on by naming it — am I in a hindrance and if so which one? Am I lacking some positive factor in my experience, and if so which one do I need to cultivate? If the mind is tending to go adrift a lot, then perhaps we need the vigilance of appamada.

Knowing about these four different dimensions of mindfulness can help make our practice much more effective. Sometimes when people have a crude understanding of what “being in the moment” means they assume that you must never have goals in meditation, not realizing that it’s the way you relate to your goals that’s important. And lacking the ability to name our mental states means that we can’t work with them effectively. Developing skill in meditation, and in inner work generally, requires a familiarity with of all of the dimensions of mindfulness.

Keeping Subtlety in the Practice

Because the sensations at the rims of the nostrils are so subtle, there can be a tendency in meditation to breathe more forcefully in order to heighten the sensations. Try to resist this tendency, and instead allow your breath to be very light and delicate. Ideally you shouldn’t be able to hear your breathing.

(Sometimes you’ll find that you think you’re hearing the breath, but that it’s actually a purely internal sound – one that only exists in your mind. This is fine, and you shouldn’t try to get rid of that kind of sound. Instead you should be aware of it as well as the physical sensations of your breathing).

Instead of breathing more heavily, try to find the subtle sensations by allowing your mind itself to become more receptive and subtle – this is the point of this fourth stage of the practice. Making your breath coarser by snorting (yes, it can get that bad!) can make it easier to feel the breath, but rather undermines the development of a more refined perception of the breath. If you don’t manage at first to find the sensations on the rims of the nostrils, then you can be aware of the breath in your nostrils; cool on the in breath and warm on the out breath.

And sometimes people find it easier to notice the sensation on the upper lip, and that’s OK as well. Over time, try to refine your awareness so that you become aware of the most delicate sensations that you can detect – these are the true focus of this stage.

If you can find the sensations of the air flowing over the rims of your nostrils, then congratulations; now it’s time for you to refine the practice even more. For example, you can notice whether the sensations are more pronounced in the left or right nostril, and you can try to take more awareness into any “dead spots” where the sensations are lacking. Or you can become more aware of the sensations just at the fronts of the rims of your nostrils, rather than all around; just to stretch your ability to detect very subtle sensations indeed.

There are always greater degrees of refinement to which we can take our mindfulness.

Why the Emphasis on Refining Our Attention?

Mindful attention enriches life, while distraction dilutes life.

Have you ever had the experience of talking with a friend while you’re distracted, and then you realize you haven’t been listening to them because you’ve drifted off on some train of thought? I’m sure you have, because we all have.

How can we develop deep and meaningful relationships with others if we can’t stay focused? How can we deepen our understanding of ourselves if we don’t experience anything but our surface distraction?

Mindful attention allows us to go more deeply into our experiences. It allows us to experience more intensely, so that we are with other people more intensely, with ourselves more intensely.

Mindful attention allows us to really enjoy what we’re doing: whether it’s being in the country, or reading a book, writing, or talking, or thinking.

Mindful attention allows us to think more clearly and deeply. When we can stay with a train of thought without wandering off, we can ask more penetrating questions of ourselves and, crucially, be able to hear the deep, considered, and wise answers that come from our depths.

Refining our mindful attention allows us to pick up on subtler sensations and perceptions. For example, if you’ve trained yourself to be aware of subtler sensations in the body. One study I read showed that regular meditators had more awareness of their bodies than professional dancers did. Isn’t that interesting? Dancers use their bodies every day, while meditators are just sitting still. Being more aware of the body helps you to be more aware of your feelings. This in turn helps you to be more aware of intuitions and hunches, which present themselves as feelings in the body.

Being able to see the richness in ordinary experiences makes ordinary activities more fulfilling. Instead of drinking a cup of coffee while also thinking about a dozen other things, we can simply drink the cup of coffee, appreciating the flavor, the odor, the warmth of the mug in our hands, the movements of the body as we lift the drink to our mouths, the contact the mug makes with our lips, the warmth of the liquid as it enters our mouths, the act of swallowing, and so on. This kind of presence is deeply satisfying and nourishing, while distractedness? Not so much!

How Long Should I Meditate Each Day?

I often get asked variants on the question, “How long should I spend meditating each day, and is there any benefit to meditation if you can’t manage forty minutes?”

Some people notice distinct psychological benefits in the forms of reduced stress and greater happiness with only ten minutes of meditation daily, although most people seem to require around twenty minutes to experience benefits.

When I was taught to meditate the meditations in the class were usually 40 or 50 minutes long. I picked up the idea that anything shorter than that wasn’t a “real” meditation and didn’t really count. That was a most unfortunate idea to pick up, because there were many days I couldn’t do that amount of meditation and so I ended up not sitting — even though I did have time to do 15 or 20 minutes.

One well-known study trained people in meditation for eight weeks. The participants, who were new to meditation, ended up meditating for an average of 23 minutes a day. At the end of eight weeks their brain activity had measurably changed, and they showed much higher activation of parts of the brain that are associated with feelings of well-being and less activation of parts of the brain associated with stress. And they were found to have an improved immune response as well. That’s after just 23 minutes a day, on average.

Through my own experience I’ve found that any amount of meditation is better than none. One those days where, for whatever reason, I’ve only been able to meditate for five or ten minutes, I’ve found that my mental states can change perceptibly over that period of time, and that the benefits persist throughout the day.

So my advice is, just do it. If you can only manage twenty minutes a day, do twenty minutes. If you can only manage ten, do that. If three minutes is all you have, then spending three minutes is much, much better than not doing anything.

And just do it every day, and have a minimum commitment for yourself of something like five minutes a day..

The amount of time you’ll have will vary. You might meditate on a regular basis for 20 or 40 minutes, but then have one of those days where you just don’t get a chance to sit until last thing at night, when you’re so tired you think you’re going to fall off your cushion. So sit for at least five minutes. You’ll maintain a sense of being committed to your practice no matter what, and you’ll feel better about yourself. And even five minutes makes a difference.

What about a maximum? Obviously for most people time available for meditation is a limiting factor. On retreat we might meditate for five, or six, or ten hours a day. That’s hardly feasible for most of us in our daily lives, but it’s worth experimenting with doing more practice and seeing what effect it has. I find that if I meditate for more than 90 minutes over the course of a day, there’s an extra “kick” from the practice, and a deep sense of joy comes into my life. I don’t expect that this length of time will apply for everyone, but I expect that there are “tipping points” past which meditation has extra benefits, and that that’s true for most people, even if the magic number isn’t always the same.

What’s Next?

Meditation is a training, not an experience. It isn’t something that you do once and see lasting benefits from. It’s something you do regularly in order to bring about the development of positive new habits. Regular practice changes the brain in very helpful ways, slowing aging, thickening the cortex, and bulking up the brain areas that are responsible for feelings of well-being and emotional regulation

I’ve also suggested that it’s a good idea to alternate the Mindfulness of Breathing meditation with the Metta Bhavana (or development of lovingkindness) practice. The two practices complement each other beautifully.

The four stages you’ve learned — (1) Counting after the out-breath, (2) Counting before the in-breath, (3) Dropping the counting and following the sensations of the breathing as a continuous, unbroken process, and (4) Focusing on the sensations at the rims of the nostrils — can be regarded as tools. As with any tools, they have to be used intelligently. At first, as an exercise in learning to develop familiarity with the tools, I’d suggest that you stick to doing all four of the stages in order, giving equal time to each stage. You might want to keep this up for several months of practice, or maybe longer.

Thereafter, you can play around with applying these tools as you need them. The first stage (counting after the out-breath) helps calm the mind. So if your mind is already calm, or if you’re sleepy, then you might want to skip this stage. The second stage stimulates alertness, so if your mind is already over-stimulated you might want to skip that stage, and stick with the first stage in order to slow your mind down.

If you find that your mind settles quickly and that you’re already alert and mindful, you might want to skip both of the first two stages, forgetting about the counting and going straight into the third, or even four stage. If you find, during one of the later stages, that you’re all over the place, then you might want to go back to one of the earlier stages.

I’ve been meditating for 40 years, and I still use the counting on certain days when my mind is unruly, although these days I’m more likely to start with the third stage of the practice, or even the fourth. But the tools are there, and I’m happy to use them as seems appropriate. We call this making the practice your own.

We also run online guided meditation courses, which you can access by becoming a sponsor. You can sign up for our monthly meditation newsletter, and we’ll be happy to let you know about our classes and other developments on this site (we will never pass your e-mail address on to third parties).

You can also learn more about this meditation practice in my book, Wildmind: A Step-by-Step Guide to Meditation.

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112 Comments. Leave new

  • Thank you very much, Bodhipaksa. I think with this bit of guidance I’m much more likely to mediate, since I can make use of what time I do have rather than approach it as an all-or-nothing commitment. I very much appreciate your input.

    Best wishes,

  • Hi , I have been meditating everyday for 4 months, after reading about the 4th stage here yesterday i decided to try it this morning.
    All was going well ,then i felt i was going very deep , breathing was very shallow and felt unconnected to my body ,also feelings of elation, i was really concentrating on rims of nostrils. i felt i wanted to go deeper but felt a pain in my side, i carried on but then felt like i was spinning round and round and had to stop because of nausea . Feel scared to try it again. Would you have any advice please ? thankyou, Kate

  • Hi, Kate.

    It sounds as if you were entering what we call jhana, which is a very concentrated, calm, and joyful level of concentration. It’s a very wholesome place to be, and in as much as there is a “point” to meditating, it’s pretty much the point, or at least one of the points. You may not have quite entered jhana, but been in a stage called access concentration, which is just below jhana.

    I don’t know why you would have felt a pain in your side. It may have been unrelated, or there may have been some control of the breathing going on, leading to tension in the muscles. If there was breath control happening, then that could also explain the dizziness. It’s possible that, sensing the arising of joy, you were (even unconsciously) trying to control events, rather than letting them unfold naturally. Really, when jhana happens it happens to us, rather than being something we do. It’s a flowering of joy from within.

    With this in mind, I’d say just keep going. You probably will have fear when you get closer to jhana again. It’s like you’ve fallen off your bike on your first attempt at cycling — naturally there will be nervousness about future attempts. But it’s worth trying again. Just know that where you were going is very natural and wholesome, and a place that countless thousands of meditators have been before you. The territory is well known, and it’s a good place to be.

    When you sense the joy arising again, accept that as a normal thing. Don’t try to control or accentuate it (I suspect you may have been controlling things here too). Just observe it, and in fact switch your attention to the joy, so that it becomes your object of focus. You’ll still be aware of the breath, but that will be a secondary experience. Once you let go, jhana will emerge naturally. It’s like a flower blooming — it does the work itself, and you just need to be there and observe. If you try to help the flower along by forcing open the bloom, well, that’s not going to enhance the experience. So just relax into it, and let the experience happen.

  • Thankyou very much for your helpful comments and prompt reply.
    I did do some more meditation this afternoon and didnt get dizzy.
    I think I was quite excited when it happened , I will try to relax and observe from now on . Its great to have someone to discuss this with, thanks again ,Kate.

    • Yes, there aren’t many people you can talk about this kind of thing with :)

      A state of excitement certainly wouldn’t have been helpful. You described yourself as “elated” which is what happens when we’re excited about feeling joy. It’s best just to accept joy and to just be joyful!

  • I just want to say thank you for making the meditation available on line. I often do the meditation during my lunch break at work and when I do I have a productive but calm afternoon.

  • Hello Bodhipaksa, I’ve been experiencing access concentration everytime I meditate , I was researching it on the web and starting seeing many references to the Dark Night . ie developing negative mental states after you have entered the first jhana. Do you think these ideas are exaggerated ? I have spent years suffering from depression and anxiety and have had lots of psychotherapy ( successfully ) dont really want to go back to that. Can i still meditate and avoid the jhanas ? I know you said they are the point of meditation, do they occur in Metta practice as well as Mindfulness of breathing? Am I being over alarmist ? I get a lot of benefit from meditation and dont want to stop :) Thanks Kate.

    • Hi, Kate.

      I’ve been meditating for almost 30 years, and I’d never heard of the “dark night” until the week befor elast, when someone pointed me toward a blog post by Ryan Oelke. The term seems to come from Daniel Ingram, who has borrowed the term from Christianity, and as far as I know there’s no term corresponding to this in the original Buddhist suttas. Doing a quick search brought up this blog post, which resorts to completely misinterpreting the Buddha’s words in an attempt to connect this supposed Dark Night with the jhanas (the extensive quotation from the Buddha describes his practice, before enlightenment, of asceticism, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the practice of the jhanas, let alone the transition from second to third jhana). Ingram himself doesn’t connect this Dark Night with the jhanas, but with the ñanas, which are states of insight, which likely won’t arise until there’s been extensive experience of jhana. So I don’t know where this idea of “developing negative mental states after you have entered the first jhana” comes from.

      Certainly, sometimes people hit jhana for the first time (or even access) and then the next time they sit they are clinging to the notion of re-experiencing what happened last time, and it doesn’t happen and they find themselves plunged into despair. But that’s normal. It’s just something you have to work through. Even if you’ve been warned about it, it’s may still happen. But this kind of thing happens to everyone, and although it’s unpleasant it’s brief. It’s no more a “dark night” than it is a dark night when a child drops his ice-cream of the sidewalk — it’s pretty much the same dynamic in both cases of wanting something and not being able to have it. We have to learn that jhana emerges from letting go, not from trying very hard to experience it.

      By the way, I’d guess that if you’re hitting access every time you meditate, then at least some of the time you’ve actually been in first jhana. Jhana can manifest in flashes.

      I suspect that some people like to dramatize: how much more exciting meditation is if it’s risky! If it takes you to the edge of the abyss! (Insert maniacal laughter here.) We must be such glamorous and exciting people to undertake such a risky venture! Yes, there are ups and downs in practice. And there are going to be times of self-doubt, and times of fear, but that’s especially not related to jhana — it’s just part of being human, and especially part of being human and attempting to learn more about yourself. Meditation does challenge us sometimes, especially if we’re doing it intensively, as on a retreat. It’s common on a retreat to have times when it’s just hard for one reason or another, but the usual pattern is that it’s hard and then you’re glad you did it.

      There are periods of doubt of oneself and of one’s sangha and of practice generally that are going to come up. These are just things that we have to work through, and this is intrinsic to commitment to anything, whether it’s spiritual practice, or a marriage, or a career, or to writing or some other creative endeavor. But I’d say that without meditation, life itself is one, long, low-grade Dark Night.

      So I would encourage you to dump the entire terminology of the “Dark Night” and to continue faring in access, until your flashes of jhana become more consistent. There will be doubts (hey, your question was an expression of doubt, so you know that) but those are bridges you’ve yet to reach, and you can’t cross them until you do. It’s rather pointless to decide not to set out on a journey in case you might meet a bridge you don’t want to cross.

  • I have been meditating on the breath or practicing meditating for about two months.Using your guide has been very helpfull especially identifying stages in which you pass priti etc.A few questions I finish work late most evenings after midnight and have been sitting down to meditate before I go to bed so as not to disturb the rest of the family I am in complete darkness is this alright or does there need to be a form of light also sometimes I have been finding that random chatter or talking have been popping up and this is quite distracting not in my own voice but just random voices sometimes even a scottish accent no conversation just random words which don’t make sense.This has only happend a handfull of times over the course of the two month period is it a concern? or just part of the process a meditating

  • Hi, Vance.

    No, there’s no strict need for light, although it can be pleasant to have candles. You might actually benefit from the extra light that candles provide, and the stimulation that comes from the illumination, since the almost dream-like voices you’re hearing suggests that you’re maybe a little tired and dreamy. This is normal, and nothing at all to be worried about; it’s just what happens when you’re a bit sleepy. On the other hand, if waking yourself up more to meditate were to interfere with your sleep, then I’d forget about it, and just meditate in the dark and put up with a little less clarity.

  • Hi there. I have to say that I have found your guidance to be VERY helpful. Over the past few weeks I have been working my way through the stages of mindfulness mediation. Now that I am working on stage four I have one question: Should I continue to include the counting stages 1 & 2 in my practice once I feel that I have become proficient in stages 3 & 4? Do you still include them in your practice? Thanks again.

    • Thanks, Jason. It’s good to know that what we do here is helpful. Your questions are very good, and I realize I should have included that information in the online guidance, so I’ve added a couple of paragraphs to this page. I think this should cover your questions, but if you have any follow-up queries, just let me know.

  • That’s great, thank you so much.

  • Why do meditation teachers avoid the subject of jhana . In my opinion it would be a great way for the student to feel real progres in his practice. Most of them teach meditation in such a way as to reach what is reffered to as acces concentration. Which is the step before entering jhana .

    • Insight meditation is the “in thing” and many insight teachers look down on jhana. Also, for some reason many people get suspicious when they hear about jhana because they think it’s selfish to be so happy during meditation. It’s odd, I know.

      Anyway, jhana is something I teach, and I encourage people to cultivate it.

  • I have a question that requires a complex answer. i was doing some deep meditation to see how i was doing subconsciously. doing repairs. i then finished and started the dive to go deeper and out of nowhere this dark women appeared. so close in fact that all i could see was here eye. she wouldn’t let me go deeper. i tried being mindful and aware of this presence and tried to see the root cause of the projection but couldn’t get any where. i was hopeing you could possibly help in giving me some advice on how to approach this.

    • Hi, Ellis.

      I don’t understand everything you’re saying (“doing repairs”?) but visions like this are not uncommon. It’s probably what we call a nimitta (a word meaning “sign” or “hint”), which is an experience (image, sound, physical feeling) that arises naturally in the mind as we’re moving deeper into concentration. The nimitta becomes the object that we should pay attention to. I’ve had an almost identical nimitta, except that my woman was very fair, and her eye was an amazing shade of green. My experience was very emotionally charged, so that I couldn’t talk about it afterward without getting all choked up. I didn’t realize that it had that degree of emotional significance, in fact, until I tried to talk about it.

      You talk about things like “she wouldn’t let me go deeper” and that you “couldn’t get anywhere.” Where were you trying to go? The image is there; just sit with it. Abandon any idea of trying to go anywhere. There’s a communication going on, and you have to let the communication unfold at its own pace. You can’t hurry these things.

  • well the rapairs are something i was taught to help with emotion and mental damage to chi. but what i meant by the figure not allowing me to move deeper is that when ever i would become aware of her presence and then move on it was like she would move in front of me again. what happened was as i was traveling deeper i got to the point of mushin or when my mind was the most still her face just appeared out of no where literally right in my face. it was very startling. i think you may be right because the expression on her face was very meaningful like she wanted me to know something or to see something that i may have been over looking.

    • Ah, that’s a term I haven’t heard before. Anyway, this vision may or may not return. Sometimes nimittas can be very consistent and keep coming back. Other times they visit once. The important thing is not to try to make anything happen. The nimitta arises as a result of letting go, and any effort to generate it is likely to undermine its reappearance.

  • The instructions for your meditation are really helpful and helped pinpoint some ambiguities I was having. Thank you very much.

  • MP3 version of the meditation described on this page is not working. (just above the comments)

  • Hi, What do we do with our mind after meditationg. Like if I meditating in the morning and go to work in the office, there are lots of mind chatter, should I be aware, watch my breath, or let the thought pass. Thanks

  • I have been coming to your site for many years now and I even took one of your courses. I have been meditating for over 30 years and I do feel more energy and love now. I especially like the mindfulness of breathing meditation and it is one of the meditations I do every day. Thank you for being here and helping people learn meditation. I appreciate you and your website.

  • Like Liz, I started coming here years ago. I just came back for a tune-up, and a very good one it was. These are the best guided meditations I have ever found, by far.

    thanks so much.

  • 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.

    • 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?

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • Thank you for this explanation of the four dimensions of mindfulness, the best I’ve read so far, I just understood the difference between them for the first time :)
    Thank you for this webpage, it is really helpful for me in my practice.

  • 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?


    • 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.

  • Thank you Bodhipaksa, I’ll follow your advice.


  • Love the elephant analogy. Where’s it from, please?

    • It’s probably completely bogus! I’d heard this “quote” in a couple of talks people had given, but this page was written many years ago, before my quote-verifying passion had kicked in. So this is may be my contribution to the rich and vibrant field of Fake Buddha Quotery. I’ll look for an original and make corrections or just delete the damn thing.

    • The story (although not the exact words) is in two of Sagharakshita’s books, where he says it’s from the Pali canon. But that may not be correct. In the meantime I’ve “de-attributed” the quote! Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!

  • ROFL here! Shall I submit it to the FBQ site? I’ve has a short trawl of accesstoinsight without luck.

    Pity if it’s bogus, as it’s a great quote. I guess you could attribute it to a “wise teacher” rather than His Bhuddaness. Oh… I’ve just spotted you’ve removed the attribution – and taken credit it for it yourself… nice one! ;-)

    FBQ removed. My work here is done. Cue exit music.

  • Hello Bodhipaksha,

    I have some anxiety and I am absent minded thinking of something or I will be talking to people who I know in my mind most of the time. I am meditating from many years, but my meditation was not effective because I was getting distracted and getting involved in those thoughts. I am doing some yoga poses and breathing now before I start meditation. This is helping me to focus on my breath during meditation with lesser distractions. My question is how much duration of meditation every day you recommend so that I am more present or aware during the day. Another question is practising the four stages is it enough for bieng present or I have to try something else like mindful awareness of sensations/emotions or anything else you would like to recommend me. I am also interested to be aware of my breath throughout the day while doing my work or tasks. I think this will keep me alert and make me more focussed/productive throughout the day. I think this is possible with practise. What is your opinion. How many months of practise I would need to master always bieng aware of breath while doing my day to day work or other activities.

    Your site is helping me a lot,
    thanks for maintaining a wonderful site,

  • Hi, Banesh.

    I wrote a new page about how long we should meditate for. The short answer is, it depends? :)

    The question about other practices is actually answered on this page.

    And I’d suggest not thinking in terms of there being a length of time after which you’ll have mastered the practices. Our mastery keeps increasing, and we can keep exploring one practice forever.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • Ricardo Almeida
    March 4, 2013 12:15 am

    Thank you for the reassurance.

  • 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!

    • 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.

  • 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…

  • 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”?

  • 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?

    • 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.

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

    • 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.”

  • 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

    • 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.

  • 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?

    • 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.

    June 20, 2013 1:32 pm

    Hello! This is PRITHWISH SAHA from INDIA.I’m 27 yr old guy,pursuing MBA. I must say thanks for such a nice column & I hope it works for me too. I’m totally new to it. & I’m very much like a scatterbrain. I know I badly need to devote time for meditation but then I get too lazy to such a commitment. I will keep meditating for 5 mins on a daily basis. And would give u a feedback a month later.

  • 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?

    • 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.

  • Great article! I’ll be making meditation a routine everyday, from now on for thirty minutes.

    Thank You so much!


  • 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


    • 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,

  • 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!

    • 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.

  • 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?

    • 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.

  • 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,


    • 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.

  • 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

  • Interestingly these are all mentioned in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures as well but using different terminology.

  • I do 100% agree that mindfullness really change one’s life for betterment. One must do it to help him and then society.

  • Hello there,

    thank you for sharing your thoughts. Quick question, is that 90 minutes in one single go or can I stagger it across the day?

    Please let me know.

    Thank you.

    • Hi, Harish.

      When I’ve experienced that extra “kick” from doing 90 minutes of meditation, it’s almost always been in two or three sits spread over the course of the day.

      All the best,

  • Thanks for the article! A question, though: if you say that people averaged 23 minutes – is that per day (e.g. spread out over 2-3 sessions) or is that one session per day?


  • Thanks Bodipaksha…am starting up now….for some reason, am not finding it that hard to do 30 minutes. wonder if im doing it right then….but i feel so light once Im done, its remarkable.

    thanks again for responding.


  • Thank you!


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