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.