Background on the Mindfulness of Breathing Meditation

You’re free either to read this background information before or after you’ve worked your way through the practice. Some people prefer to know something about a practice before they do it, while others would rather plunge in and then seek more clarity on what they’ve just experienced. It’s up to you.

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In the mindfulness of breathing meditation practice we use the breath as an object of awareness. We pay attention the physical sensations of the breath, and the accompanying sensations in the body as the breath flows in and out of the body.

This meditation practice isn’t a breathing exercise. We allow the breath to flow naturally and are simply aware of it. So there is no control over the breathing.

One of the first things we learn when we try to do this meditation practice is how distracted our minds are! All sorts of thoughts and feelings flow into our awareness, and then we find we’ve forgotten all about the breath. This is a good thing to learn. If we don’t know this we can’t do anything about it.

Most of what comes into our minds is not very useful, and often it’s actually bad for us. For example we find ourselves worrying or getting angry, or putting ourselves down.

The simple principle behind this meditation practice is that if we keep taking our awareness back to the breath — over and over again — then our mind gradually quiets down and we feel more contentment.

Usually we do this with the eyes shut, to minimize distraction.

You’ll need to know how to sit effectively, so you can either go to the meditation posture guidelines or, if you already know how to sit, then go directly to the meditation practice.

Use the links on the left to navigate round the practice. If this is your first time practicing the Mindfulness of Breathing, then start with stage one.

History and Form of the Practice

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 two important early meditation texts. The most well-known of these is the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purity) of the great Theravadin scholar, Buddhaghosa, who lived in 5th century India and Sri Lanka.

Even earlier, though, it’s described very clearly in the Vimuttimagga (Path of Liberation), compiled by Upatissa around the first century. Upatissa says that this approach was taught by “certain predecessors,” which he refers to throughout his manual as being “the ancients.” This suggests that the practice was considered very old in the time he lives, around five hundred years after the Buddha. It may in fact have been taught at the time of the Buddha or not long after.

This form of the practice 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:

  1. 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. This practice helps to calm both body and mind. (Go to the guide for the first stage of the practice.)
  2. 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. This stage of the practice helps us to bring more energy and alertness into our relaxed state of mind. (Go to the guide for the second stage of the practice.)
  3. 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. This helps us to develop an unbroken stream of moments of mindfulness. (Go to the guide for the third stage of the practice.)
  4. 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. This final stage can potentially help us to let go into a “flow state” of absorption in which the mind is almost free of thoughts, and in which we’re joyfully attentive to the sensations of the breathing.  (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 breathing. 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.

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.

Coming Back to the Breathing, Over and Over

In the mindfulness of breathing we give the breath our full attention. We use the physical sensations of the breath as an object that we focus on. We just allow the breath to happen. This is not a breathing exercise. We simply observe, and see what happens.

What we do in the Mindfulness of Breathing

So, we start off by following the breath. After a while what tends to happen is that we forget all about the breath, forget all about meditation, and get distracted by some train of thought, which is often nothing at all to do with meditation. We don’t usually make any conscious decision to think about something outside of the meditation practice. It just happens as habitual patterns of behavior come into play. In fact, not only do we not choose to get distracted, we don’t have much choice at all!

Becoming Unaware

Our habits are controlling us. It’s more like our thoughts are thinking us than we are thinking them. So one of the first things we learn in meditation is just how little control we do have — it’s quite a disconcerting realization for many of us. However, the fact that we often aren’t in control isn’t cause to become despondent — it’s the same for most of us most of the time. And we have to become aware of how distracted we are before we can do anything about it.

Question: So what do we do when we’re meant to be meditating, but aren’t?

Often we’re getting irritated, or fantasizing about things we’d rather be doing, or undermining ourselves, or dozing, or worrying about something. Most of these activities aren’t very helpful or fulfilling. They’re not things we decided to do, they’re simply the habitual things we do when we’re not aware. The things we do when we’re meant to be meditating but aren’t, are called the hindrances to meditation, and we’ll be exploring them in more detail in later classes. As well as learning about them we’ll learn a whole bunch of tools to help us deal with them.

the cycle of awareness

The difference between being mindful and not being mindful is a big one, although we’re often not very good at recognizing the difference between the two states. After all, we slip in and out of awareness all day. But there really is a big difference between being mindful and not being mindful, as we’ll learn to see.

Regaining Awareness

So we get distracted, but at some point we become aware that we haven’t been aware. In other words we regain our awareness. This is a crucial point in the meditation process. Now we’re aware again. Now we’re no longer being driven by our habits. We have freedom again. We can decide that we don’t want to re-enter the world of distractedness. We have choice. We can choose to exercise being aware rather than be dominated by our habitual distracted states of mind. We have an opportunity to cultivate awareness by maintaining our mindfulness of the breath. When we realize we’ve been distracted we can take our awareness back to the breath.

The Power of Making Choices

There’s an important opportunity available to us at the point when we regain our awareness. We can choose not only what we do (taking our awareness to the breath), but how we do it.

When we realize that we’ve been distracted there can be a strong temptation to beat ourselves up. Of course if we do that then we’re going straight back into an uncontrolled, unaware state of distractedness — we undermine ourselves or get annoyed.

A more creative response is that we bring our awareness back to the breath with as much kindness, and patience, and gentleness as we can. Instead of giving yourself a hard time about having been distracted you can even congratulate yourself on having regained your awareness. This is a very important practice; whenever you realize that you’ve been distracted, focus instead on the fact that you’ve regained your awareness and allow yourself to feel a sense of pride and joy at that fact. You can even imagine yourself punching your fist in the air in a gesture of victory.

When you’re taking your awareness back to the breath, bear in mind that your mind is a miraculous and precious thing. Carry your awareness back to the breath in the same way as you would pick up a young kitten in order to return it to its mother. Try and be that gentle and that kind. Your mind has a natural tendency to wander, just like a young, inquisitive animal. So there’s no point in being harsh with yourself.

The meditation practice we’ll be learning after we’ve practiced the Mindfulness of breathing for a few weeks is called the metta bhavana, and it’s all about bringing more of those qualities of kindness and appreciation into our lives.

Benefits of the Practice

In the mindfulness of breathing meditation no matter how many times we become distracted we come back to the breath over and over again, and that has a number of important benefits, which are detailed below. This isn’t by any means an exhaustive list of the benefits of this practice, which also include improved immune function, the development of greater amounts of brain tissue, delayed aging, etc. Here we’re talking mainly about the changes in your experience that will take place if you regularly practice this meditation.

Developing Awareness

  • The breath becomes a kind of anchor that helps us to stay in awareness.
  • We’re practicing recognizing the difference between awareness and unawareness.
  • We’re also working on developing those qualities of patience, kindness, and gentleness that are so important when we realize when we’ve been unaware — when we’ve just come out of being distracted and have regained our awareness.

And we’re also training ourselves to stay out of “the hindrances,” which are distracted states of mind that cause us to suffer. Becoming distracted is a bit like falling over when you’re a little kid. When we try to follow the breath it’s like we’ve decided to walk. But then after a few steps we stumble and get distracted. But we keep picking ourselves up by going back to the breath. The way kids learn to walk is by taking a few steps, falling over, and picking themselves up over and over again. The way we learn to be more aware is by following the breath, getting distracted, and then going back to the breath — over and over and over again.

Developing Calmness

I’ve mentioned that the hindrances are not very satisfying states of mind. Being annoyed, or fantasizing, or undermining ourselves, all involve a lot of mental disharmony. They cause turbulence in our minds, and so we find that we’re not very calm. Learning to spend less time in the hindrances means that we develop a calmer mind.

Becoming More Content

The hindrances are also not states in which we’re very happy. If we’re fantasizing, for example — either about things we’d rather be doing, or about things we’re not happy about — then there’s emotional disharmony since we’re not happy what we’re doing. Spending less time in distracted states of mind means that we become more content.

Developing Concentration

And when we’re distracted then we’re not very concentrated — our mind is jumping from one topic to another like a butterfly. This means we don’t experience anything very deeply — like when we’re talking to someone and we’re also preoccupied and realize they’ve been talking but we don’t know what they’ve said. Or when we’re eating handfuls of raisins but not really tasting them because we’re reading and the radio is on. That kind of thing doesn’t help us connect very deeply with our experience. And how can we reflect if we can’t keep up a focused train of thought? And if we can’t reflect then how do we learn? Practicing mindfulness helps us to be more concentrated so that we can live more deeply, and appreciate life more fully.

Later, we’ll also be looking more closely at calm, contentment, and concentration and looking at ways we can cultivate those qualities more directly, as part of the tool-kit of methods we’re developing to work with our mind.