In the preamble, the Buddha describes the community that was gathered around him. There are those who are completely enlightened (Arahants — literally “worthy ones”), and those who are well on the path to Arahantship, having broken some of the ten fetters that bind us to the path of delusion.
These practitioners, of various levels of attainment, explore many kinds of meditation, but one of the commonest practices would have been the Mindfulness of Breathing. This practice, the Buddha tells us,
“when developed and pursued, is of great fruit, of great benefit. Mindfulness of in-and-out breathing, when developed and pursued, brings the four foundations of mindfulness to their culmination.
The four foundations of mindfulness are: mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of thoughts and emotions, and mindfulness of dhammas (mindfulness of objects of consciousness). You can read more about what these terms refer to in our walking meditation section.
Mindfulness gives us the ability to stand back from and observe our experience. We are able to watch physical sensations arise, exist, and pass away. And we can do the same for feelings, mental states, and objects of consciousness. Because we’re observing our experience we’re able to still the mind by becoming non-reactive. We still experience intensely — it’s not that we’re watering down our experience or entering some kind of blank stat — and in fact we’re able to experience with greater intensity, but instead of the mind being caught up in a stream of thoughts and emotions we’re able simply to experience them flow through us.
“The four foundations of mindfulness, when developed and pursued, bring the seven factors for Awakening to their culmination.”
The seven factors of awakening are:
- Mindfulness, or sati. We are developing the ability to observe our experience with curiosity and friendliness, and without becoming grossly distracted
- Investigation, dhamma-vicaya. We are becoming more able to investigate our experience. This is the active dimension of mindfulness in which we start to understand ourselves more deeply.
- Energy, viriya. Because of the integrating effect of mindfulness practice we become less conflicted and more in harmony with ourselves. This releases energy because the mind is no longer pulling in two directions at once.
- Rapture, piti. In our meditation practice and in daily life, we experience greater levels of joy and pleasure.
- Tranquility passaddhi. Especially in meditation, the mind becomes very still.
- Concentration, samadhi. Because the mind if so still and clear, we are able to focus our attention with laser-like clarity on whatever we choose. This is the stage of one-pointed absorption. This includes the ability to reflect deeply on our experience. Reflecting here is not the constant churning of verbal thoughts in the mind, but the ability to note the impermanence of our experiences (everything arises, exists, and passes away) and also it’s contingent nature (none of our experiences, because of their impermanent nature, are inherently part of us).
- Equanimity, upekkha. The realizations cultivated in samadhi mount up, and as a result we develop an unshakable sense of wellbeing and security. Equanimity here is a synonym for spiritual awakening, or enlightenment.
“The seven factors for Awakening, when developed and pursued, bring clear knowing and release to their culmination.”
And so having followed this path, we become aware that something profound has changed in us. It seems that it’s possible to become enlightened and then only to realize it later! It becomes ever clearer to us that we are no longer the same person that we were, and that we are now freed from some of the deep, unconscious, habits and attitudes that have caused us suffering in the past.
In short, the mindfulness of breathing practice leads to liberation, or enlightenment. The Buddha here is simply outlining what the ultimate purpose of this practice is. The practice is taught not so that you can be a little bit calmer (although it will do that for you, and that’s a fine place to start), but the practice aims at complete liberation from the factors that cause us suffering.