Stage 3 of the Mindfulness of Breathing: Experiencing the Continuity of the Breathing

In the third stage of this meditation practice we let go of the counting and simply follow the breath as it flows in and out. This is the Mindfulness of Breathing proper, and if I were forced to introduce the Mindfulness of Breathing practice in two minutes then this is what I’d teach — simply paying attention to the sensations of the breath.

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However, by saying that I don’t want to devalue the earlier two stages, which are important aids in helping us to practice effectively in this stage of the practice and important practices in their own right.

Here’s an outline of the practice so far:

Stage Zero

Set up your posture, as described in the posture guidelines, developing awareness of the body and relaxing as best you can.

Stage One

Then, becoming aware of the breath as the central experience within the body, begin counting after each out-breath, counting in cycles of ten breaths. When you notice the mind wandering, gently bringing it back to the breath. Notice the gently relaxing quality of the out-breath.

Stage Two

Moving into the second stage of the practice, begin counting just before each in-breath, again counting ten breaths before starting over again at one. Notice the gently stimulating quality of the in-breath.

When you feel ready, move onto the third stage.

Stage Three

In the third stage of the practice, drop the counting, and just follow the breathing coming in and out. Pay particular attention to the transitions from an in-breath to an out-breath, since those are the places where you’re most likely to become distracted.

See if you can notice the breathing as a continuous process — not as a series of in-breaths and out-breaths, but as a never-ending stream of sensation connected with the movements of the body, and the sensations of the air flowing into and out of the body.

You can listen to an MP3 guided meditation that will lead you through the first three stages of the practice by clicking on the player below:

The “Gaining Idea” in Meditation

If you’ve been working methodically through this practice you know the score by now. Try doing all three stages for a few days. Practice them every day, if possible, and get to know them well.

Watch out for any tendency to want to skip over one stage (maybe because you don’t like it as much as the others). Each stage has its own special function, so remember to do them in the correct order.

You might want to make your meditation a little longer now, perhaps five minutes per stage, making fifteen minutes.

Shunryu Suzuki, the famous Zen teacher who founded the San Francisco Zen Center and who was a major influence on Western Buddhism, talked about “the gaining idea.” This rather awkward but incredibly useful phrase points to the problem that arises in our practice when we’re hungering for results. We want be enlightened right here and right now. Or we simply want to rush on to learn the whole practice so that we can check that off our list of things to do. The gaining idea is a major hindrance to developing skill in meditation.

As Suzuki Roshi said, “When a gaining idea arises in our practice, it is a sign that our practice is in trouble.” The reason for this is that we’ve actually incorporated our restless, grasping mind into our meditation practice. Our practice has been taken over by the mind that craves, yearns, and tries to appropriate results without following the path that leads to those results.

These attitudes of grasping, craving, and greedy hunger are the very things that cause us suffering in the first place. Because we suffer we want to meditate, because meditation is the antidote to craving and suffering. And then what happens? Our craving takes control of the meditation! It’s as if the antidote to the poison itself accidentally becomes contaminated with poison!

It’s useful if you learn to recognize this gaining idea, this notion that somehow your best interests will be served if you rush through the practice. That notion is false. Meditation is about letting go of grasping so that we can experience freedom. So start doing that now by deciding that you’ll pause where you are right now, and that you’ll explore the stages of the meditation practice and really get to know them before you move on to the next stage.

As part of that exploration come back to this section and read a bit more about the issues that can arise in this stage of the practice.

Remember to Check in With Your Body

Perhaps this is a good time to remind you of your body. I’ve emphasized that it’s important to set up your posture at the start of a period of practice. Doing this provides you with better conditions for meditating.

It’s like making sure, when you’re building a fire, that your kindling is stacked just right and that your matches are dry, so that you’ll end up with a good blaze instead of a pile of smoldering wood and a bad temper.

But when you take your attention away from your posture in order to be more aware of your breath, you’ll often find that your posture starts to drift. You might find that some parts of your body start to sag, while others become tense. And these changes lead to mental and emotional changes.

The tension in your shoulders might be related to some anger you’ve started to experience. The sagging in your spine might be related to a feeling of despair that’s crept in. If you relax your shoulders, the anger will start to disappear again. If you straighten your spine, you’ll start to feel more confident again.

As you become more proficient at meditation, you’ll learn that you can periodically take your attention away from your breath for a split second in order to check your posture and make minor corrections. You’ll get so good at doing this that you’ll be able to effectively keep a continuous awareness of your breath.

Remember learning to drive? You probably found that at first you’d take your attention off the road to change gears and when you took your attention back to the road (several long seconds later) you’d find that you’d drifted off towards one side or that a red traffic light had mysteriously appeared from nowhere. Later, you’ll have found that you were able to change gears without significantly taking your awareness from what was going on around you.

The same thing happens in meditation – we learn to deal with the seeming complexity of managing our posture and what we’re doing with the focus of our attention – elegantly and even effortlessly. A good way to start practicing this skill of monitoring your posture without disrupting your practice is to check and correct your posture in between stages.

You might want to do this every time you move from one stage to another. Later, you’ll find that you can integrate monitoring your posture into your practice in the way that I’ve described.

Balancing Alertness and Relaxation

While stage one of this meditation practice helps to develop more calm (by emphasizing the qualities of the out breath), and stage two helps to develop more energy and awareness (by emphasizing the qualities of the in breath), the third stage emphasizes both the in breath and the out breath equally. This helps us to blend the calm relaxation of the first stage with the energized awareness of the second stage.

In our meditation practice we are ideally developing a sense of energetic calm awareness, or a calmly energized awareness. While doing stage three you can be aware of the constant oscillation between the calming out breath and the energizing in breath, and allow the qualities of the out breath and of the in breath to permeate each other.

Modifying an analogy the Buddha himself used, you can think about making dough. When you’re making dough, what you’re doing is taking two contrasting substances – a wet one and a dry one – and combining them together in a perfectly balanced blend.

If you have too much water, then you’ll have a sticky mess, while if you have too much flour, you’ll have a dry, cracked ball.

Get the proportions just right, and you’ll have dough that is perfectly pliable and workable. (The Buddha’s analogy involved a “bathman or bathman’s apprentice) blending soap powder and water — presumably the Buddha was more familiar from his earlier life with bathing in luxury spas than he was with baking).

Just as the right balance of flour and water (or soap-powder and water) produces a pliable mixture that can be used appropriately, this stage of the mindfulness of breathing meditation practice helps us to develop pliability of mind; to get our minds into a calm and energetic state where we can work to develop a much greater degree of concentration.

Signs of Progress in Meditation

An obsession with getting someplace in meditation can be very unhelpful. But you’re new to meditation you often need some gentle reassurance that you’re on the right path. Often it’s hard to tell whether you are making progress or not. I note elsewhere that one of the things that will help you to stick with your meditation practice is the ability to notice and appreciate small changes. So here are some of the small changes that you might want to watch out for.

  • Other people noticing that you are changing. Sometimes it’s hard to have a sense of perspective on ourselves. We can easily concentrate on supposed failures to the extent that we completely miss positive changes. Often, my meditation students report that other people notice that they are changing; becoming more relaxed, less reactive, and more friendly.
  • Starting to develop more concentration. You can use the counting to give you a sense of whether you are developing more concentration. Being able to count to ten even once may be a step forward. If you make it to there, then you might want to aim to count to ten three times in a row. You might notice that you have the ability to count continuously and also have a lot of thoughts arising. That’s great! Pay more attention to the fact that you have developed more continuity of awareness than you do to the fact that there are still a lot of stray thoughts.
  • Having interesting experiences in meditation. You may begin to notice unusual things – like a delightful sense of rhythm in your breathing, or the way in which your body subtly moves in response to your heartbeat. These are signs that you are developing more concentration and awareness in meditation, and you would be wise to pay attention to such experiences. Some of the things you might experience might seem a little odd. A common example is seeing patterns of moving lights. This is a good sign, in that you are moving into a deeper state of concentration. But it’s best not to pay much attention to those lights or they will turn into a distraction and slow your progress.
  • Spontaneous resolution of posture problems. Sometimes you’ll notice parts of your body relaxing spontaneously. Sometimes a particular problem you had with your posture might suddenly disappear.
  • Paying more attention to the outside world. It’s a very good sign when you start to slow down and notice the beauty in the world.
  • Noticing your posture more. You may become more aware of your body during the course of the day, and you may notice how awareness of your body grounds you. You may even come to a deeper understanding of how your posture influences your emotions and mind.
  • Noticing you have choices. You may start to notice the gap between stimulus and response, and realize that you have a choice about how to respond. You can choose not to respond habitually, but instead to choose a more appropriate and creative response.
  • Becoming more aware of your actions. Often, before we get to the stage of being aware of our actions before we do them, we start to notice them after we’ve done them. It’s tempting to feel frustration to realize that you’ve lost your temper once again, but actually it’s a good sign that you’re noticing this at all. With practice you’ll be able to catch those responses earlier and earlier, until you’re able to choose to respond more creatively.
  • Feelings of calmness. You may have spells of greater than usual calmness in your meditation or after meditation. You may even experience some reluctance to end a period of meditation.
  • Interesting and vivid dreams. When your meditation begins to “bite”, it often leads to more vivid and meaningful dreams. Pay attention to these and see what you can learn from them.
  • Becoming more dissatisfied. Paradoxically, one side-effect of becoming more self-aware is that you realize that there are things about yourself that you’d like to change. This realization is uncomfortable but also useful. If you don’t become aware of things in your behavior that you want to change you’ll never do anything about them.
  • Time passing quickly. When you’re really enjoying something, time passes more quickly. It’s common to notice that time passes faster in certain meditations.

One of the main signs of progress in meditation, though, is being more relaxed about making progress. Our meditation practice never changes in a constant, linear way. There are always ups and downs. One day you’re sitting there and you unexpectedly find that you’re blissfully happy and almost totally without distraction. The next day your mind is all over the place. This is normal, and it’s good to relax, and not be obsessed about “getting somewhere.” Yes, it’s good to have the aspiration to move in the direction of greater calm and happiness, but the expectation that this is going to happen will bring us nothing but pain. Bearing in mind the aspiration to move in the direction of greater calm and happiness, we simply work with whatever arises, not worrying about whether it’s a “good” meditation or a “bad” meditation.

Also, not all changes are noticeable in the short term. It’s now known that when you meditate, you rewire your brain in helpful ways. Can you tell whether or not new neurons have been generated, or whether new connections between neurons have been built? Of course not. But it’s happening anyway. It might take months for those changes to manifest in anything perceptible. So in the meantime, just relax and get on with the practice.

Lastly, if you’re here because you’re having odd experiences in meditation, like swirling lights or your body feeling odd, I’d suggest the post I wrote on “Odd experiences in meditation.”

Using Anchors in Stage Three

If the first two stages have gone really well, letting go of the numbers can allow us to develop a deeper and more balanced concentration. However, if we haven’t managed to develop enough calmness in the first two stages, then it’s easy to get lost in the third stage.

This often happens because the counting has been acting as an anchor for our awareness: it stops us from drifting too far away from the breath. So if we let go of the counting we can often float off into distraction.

One way to retain an anchor while letting go of the numbers is to use a physical sensation in the body as an anchor. I sometimes use the physical sensations in my hands in the same way as I use the numbers.

Sometimes at the end of every out-breath I take my awareness to my hands in order to keep me grounded. I use the sensations in my hands much as I’d use the numbers.

The physical anchor is a more refined anchor than the counting because it’s non-verbal — it cuts down on the amount of thinking, so that your mind can develop a deeper level of stillness.

Other times I maintain awareness of my hands throughout the cycle of each in-breath and out-breath. When I breathe in there’s a sensation of rising in the body and so I have a general sense of the gap between the hands and the breath widening. In each out-breath there’s a feeling that the body is sinking, and so I get a sense of the connection between the hands and the breath narrowing. So I notice the connection between the hands and the breath, and this helps keep the mind from wandering off.

Partly I think this works because it makes the practice more interesting. But partly I think it’s something to do with introducing a “stretch” into the practice. What I mean is that I’ve noticed that when my mind stretches to accommodate two separate sensations it seems to calm down very quickly. I can’t explain this, but I offer it as a tool that might be useful.

Other “stretches” involve being aware of the space outside my body while focusing on some inner sensation (like the breath), and being aware of sounds outside of myself while following some inner sensation.

You might want to play around with this idea of creating a stretch in your awareness and see what happens. Just notice two very different and geographically separate sensations, and pay attention to both simultaneously. And notice what the result is.

What’s a Good Meditation?

There are two answers to the question of what defines a good meditation. Both are valid, but one answer is more useful than the other.

The first answer would be that a good meditation is one where you feel concentrated, where you’re enjoying yourself, and where there aren’t many distractions. This is probably the most common answer that people would give, and it’s the least useful.

The second answer would be that a good meditation is one where you have taken every opportunity to return your attention to the breath — no matter how distracted you have been. So you might have been very distracted, but every time you realized that you had been distracted you’d taken your awareness back to the breath. This is a much more useful way to think of what a good meditation consists of.

The reason that the second way of looking at this question is more useful, is that “good” meditations of the first type will come and go, whereas you can always have “good” meditations of the second type. Also, this is a more realistic way of looking at things. In meditation you’re working to alter your mental and emotional habits. You’re subtly changing your personality.

In a “good” meditation of the first type you might be having an easy time of it — your practice is very enjoyable — but you might not be actively engaging with yourself. You might actually be rather passive. But a meditation where you have really worked — even though you’ve experienced a lot of distractions and not had an easy time of it — that is a good meditation.

Thought Trains

We talk about “trains of thought.” You can think of these as being like real locomotive trains that pull into a busy station and then go rattling off. Most of them don’t go anywhere that we particularly want to go (most of them are to do with worrying, getting angry, running ourselves down, etc). But our mind is like a little kid that’s very restless and curious, and keeps going through the open doors into the carriages.

Before we know it we’re miles away from where we wanted to be (in dangerous territory, often!), and it takes us forever to get home.

By learning meditation you can learn just to watch the trains pulling up and pulling away, being aware of them and choosing not to get into them.

Are there any trains we want to get into? Yes. Some thoughts can be useful, if they are reflections about our meditation, for example. Such thoughts take us deeper into our meditation.

One difference between useful thought trains and those that take us into distractions, is that when we’re reflecting (as opposed to being distracted), we know what we’re thinking and why, and what effect those thoughts are having). By contrast distracted thoughts are like dreams — we don’t know we’re in them until we “wake up.”

But it can take a while to recognize which thoughts are useful and at first it’s not a bad idea simply to treat all thoughts as distractions and to let them all depart from the station of the mind while you “just sit” on the platform.

Breathing, not breaths

There’s another way that the third stage of the mindfulness of breathing meditation, in which we drop the counting of the first two stages and simply follow the breath flowing in and out, is a progression from those two stages.

The progression consists in sensing the continuity of the breathing process, through having an unbroken awareness of the breathing rather than in having an awareness of individual breaths.

When we’re counting out-breaths (as in the first stage of the meditation practice) or counting in-breaths (as in the second stage) there’s an inevitable tendency to experience the process of the breathing as being chopped into bits. There’s an in-breath. Then an out-breath. Then another in-breath. Then another out-breath. We may acknowledge pauses between the in and out phases, so that we mentally chop the breathing into four parts: in / pause / out / pause.

Now actually the breathing process isn’t quite like that. It’s not really divided into discrete parts. When you watch the breathing closely in meditation you’ll see that the in-breath shades into a feeling of fullness, which then shades into the release of the out-breath. Then the increasing sense of emptiness at the end of the exhalation shades into the beginning of the next in-breath. There are no distinct beginnings or ends. There’s just one continuous process that changes its character over time. It’s much like looking at a rainbow. There are different colors, but when you look at where one color shades into another you’ll see there are no distinct transitions.

We’re practicing mindfulness of breathing, not mindfulness of breaths.

When we experience the breath as chopped up then there’s a tendency for our awareness itself to become discontinuous. We actively experience the in-breath, then the mind goes a bit floppy for a moment, then we pay attention to the out-breath, then the mind goes a bit squidgy again. Somewhere during the times when the mind is taking a little vacation from vividly noticing the breath it decides instead to get absorbed in some thought or fantasy, and we don’t have the mental sharpness to stop it from going on a little (or perhaps a long) wander.

When we get to the end of the second stage and stop counting we have the opportunity to experience the wholeness of the breathing rather than the chopped-up-ness of in-out-in-out. And so our awareness itself becomes more continuous. We’re less likely to get distracted. The mind becomes more attuned to the subtler sensations where the breath is changing from an inhalation to an exhalation, and vice versa. And we develop a very pleasant sense that we have a continuous thread of awareness running through our experience.

So practically, what this means is that we follow the sensations of the breath as it flows in, noticing the sensations of movement becoming subtler as the sensations of fullness are becoming stronger, noticing the “cresting” of the inhaling as it releases from fullness into the emptying of exhaling, noticing the sensations of exhaling becoming stronger as the body moves faster and as the exhaling happens more slowly, bottoming out into an increasing sense of emptiness, until the emptiness gives way to a sense of filling. And so on, and so on. It’s actually hard to put this in writing because for the sake of clarity in writing I have to use commas and periods, which suggests a succession of discrete experiences rather than an ever-evolving transition within one single experience, which is the process of breathing.

Another approach would be, next time you’re following the breathing (and maybe that’s right now) seeing if you can notice any absolute boundaries and discontinuities within the process of the breathing. I think you’ll find there are none, and that as your sense of the breathing becomes more continuous, so too does your sense of the continuity of your mindfulness.

Guiding, Not Controlling

The great hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson, told a story about how one day, when he was a boy, a riderless horse wandered into the farmyard outside his home. Milton had never seen this horse before, and had no idea where it lived, but very soon he had the horse back where it belonged. How did he do this?

Well, he sat on the horse’s back, got it to start walking, and then every time they came to a turn in the road, he paid attention to the almost imperceptible movements of the horse’s body that told him where it wanted to go. And once young Milton had sensed in which direction the horse wanted to head in, he encouraged it to do so. It turned out that the horse knew its own way home, and all Milton had to do was give it a little gentle guidance — or encouragement to trust its own instincts.

It’s similar with our breathing. I’ve said that in the mindfulness of breathing practice we’re not controlling our breath. On the other hand I’ve also suggested that you can use deep breathing, or breathing into the belly, or breathing into the upper chest, etc., as ways of altering your state of mind. This might sound contradictory, but it’s not really. When we change the pattern of our breathing, we don’t have to exert any control. We can gently guide the breath without controlling it, as Milton did.

Had Milton tried to tell the horse where to go, he’d never have got it home. Horses, after all, are trained to follow orders. Instead he used a more subtle technique of being aware of where the horse wanted to go, and then reinforced that desire with some gentle guidance. The horse soon got the idea.

We all are riders of horses, in a way. Our breathing is generally under the control of subconscious processes, and it has to be said that our subconscious, by and large, does a pretty good job of keeping breathing. The subconscious rarely fails to carry out its tasks, which is more than can be said for our conscious minds (how often do we go upstairs to get something and then forget by the time we get there what it was we wanted?). So let your subconscious do what it’s good at.

When you want to change your breathing, say by breathing into your belly more deeply, then all you really have to do is to take your awareness into your belly to give your subconscious a gentle hint, and then let it do the work. In this way, we gently guide our breath rather than control it.