The anapanasati practice

15120291 - seated buddha in meditation at polonnaruwaIn this section, the Buddha outlines sixteen ways of approaching the Mindfulness of Breathing meditation practice.

Mindfulness of In-and-Out Breathing

Now how is mindfulness of in-and-out breathing developed and pursued so as to bring the four foundation of mindfulness to their culmination?

There is the case where a monk, having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building, sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect, and setting mindfulness to the fore. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.

The first tetrad (group of four practices) relates to mindfulness of the body — first just being aware of the breathing (which is a physical sensation) and noticing whether the breaths are short or long. Then the breathing is noticed in relation to the entire body, so that the practice is no longer narrowly focused on the sensation of the breathing, but instead the breathing is used as an anchor for a wider sense of awareness. Sometimes we talk about “mindfulness with breathing” instead of “mindfulness of breathing” in order to make this distinction. Lastly, the meditator uses this mindfulness of the entire body to bring about physical calmness and release, or relaxation.

First Tetrad

[1] Breathing in long, he discerns that he is breathing in long; or breathing out long, he discerns that he is breathing out long.

[2] Or breathing in short, he discerns that he is breathing in short; or breathing out short, he discerns that he is breathing out short.

[3] He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to the entire body, and to breathe out sensitive to the entire body.

[4] He trains himself to breathe in calming the body, and to breathe out calming the body.

So in this stage (1 and 2 — although we shouldn’t take these 16 approaches to mindfulness of breathing to be stages that we need to work through in order) we’re establishing the first foundation of mindfulness.

We’re noticing first of all simply whether the breaths are short or long. Then (3) we’re using our focus on the breath as a central point of reference to help establish mindful awareness of the whole body. We don’t need to think about being narrowly focused on the breathing in the mindfulness of breathing practice. The breath is just a tool to help us develop mindfulness, and it’s not an end in itself.

Then (4) we’re allowing the body to relax deeply. This isn’t a conscious process of letting go, but the release from within of tensions that have been help unconsciously in the body. From time to time there will be a sense of sudden release, although sometimes there will just be a gradual sense of ease. The body can start to feel more alive and energized, while at the same time remaining calm and still.

This leads into the next tetrad, which is concerned with feelings and emotions. As the body relaxes, energy is released. This energy is known as rapture, and can be experienced in many ways.

Manifestations of rapture (piti) in meditation

Some of the commonest manifestations of rapture, or piti, are rushes of energy, or tingling, or pleasant sensations in various parts of the body. While these sensations arise, the meditator should simply observe them, without becoming elated by them.

One good way to achieve this — and which the sutta recommends — is to be aware of the rapture in relation to the breathing. The breathing is used as an anchor, and this stops the meditator from being blown off course by these often powerful winds of pleasure. As physical energy is released, positive emotions are experienced, and again the breathing is used as an anchor to allow the meditator to absorb these experiences with equanimity. Pleasure and rapture are natural consequences of meditating — they just happen automatically as we start to relax.

The meditator also becomes more aware of how the mind tends to show aversion towards unpleasant sensations and attachment towards pleasant ones. Becoming more aware of these mental processes, we can then let go of craving and aversion and simply experience what we’re experiencing. This leads to the emotional calmness that we call equanimity.

Second tetrad

[5] He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to rapture, and to breathe out sensitive to rapture.

[6] He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to pleasure, and to breathe out sensitive to pleasure.

[7] He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to mental processes, and to breathe out sensitive to mental processes.

[8] He trains himself to breathe in calming mental fabrication, and to breathe out calming mental fabrication.

The third tetrad deals with the mind and emotions. As we stop reacting to our experience, we start to become happier. First we notice the mind, and then we notice how the mind becomes more joyful. With the mind having become more joyful, these is less of a tendency for it to wander, and so the mind becomes steadier. Once we have developed concentration in this way, we can then apply our mind to liberating itself, since the mind has become a powerful tool for reflection.

Third Tetrad

[9] He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to the mind, and to breathe out sensitive to the mind.

[10] He trains himself to breathe in satisfying the mind, and to breathe out satisfying the mind.

[11] He trains himself to breathe in steadying the mind, and to breathe out steadying the mind.

[12] He trains himself to breathe in releasing the mind, and to breathe out releasing the mind.

The fourth tetrad shows four ways that we can reflect in order to free the mind. In these reflections we contemplate the impermanence of our experience as we notice the arising, enduring, fading, and passing of sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts.

This can involve simply noticing sounds arising and falling, or noting how an itch constantly changes, or it can involve watching a complex “story” unfolding in the mind and then dissipating.

Fourth Tetrad

[13] He trains himself to breathe in focusing on impermanence, and to breathe out focusing on impermanence.

[14] He trains himself to breathe in focusing on fading and to breathe out focusing on fading.

[15] He trains himself to breathe in focusing on cessation, and to breathe out focusing on cessation.

[16] He trains himself to breathe in focusing on relinquishment, and to breathe out focusing on relinquishment.

19 Comments. Leave new

  • Great article, very informative!

    However, i am stuck with immense confusion regarding the method and the variety of methods used to employ in jhana. I find that in the Visuudhumagga(or however you spell it) that if one simply attends to the breath simply at the tip of the nose, with persistence a nimitta sign will appear and withe intense focus on that, one will attain jhana. And the tetrads from the suttas provide a different method.

    Can one use either and expierence the same results?

    Also in regards to the first tetrad. How long should one maintain on whether the breath is short/long before moving onto the whole body in their field of awareness? And if i interpreted it correctly, one after establishing the duration of the breath(short/long) one then encompasses his whole physical and mental field in order to see formations?

    And when one is aware of the whole body, what do you do to the breath, just keep maintaing a peripheral awareness of it sort of in the background?

    I have just started this practice though i have had prior expierence with narrowness on the tip of the nose method. So far i have maintained a good sense of establishing the duration of the breathing which is i feel like its me to move on. Pls clarify

    Also, it may sound like an idiotic question but why shouldnt the 16 stages be used in order?

    Anyways thanks and with metta, Mike

  • Hi, Michael.

    There are no doubt many different routes into jhana. A good analogy might be swimming. There are different strokes one can use — breaststroke, crawl, butterfly, etc. — and they all work. But you need to pick one on any given swim, and stick with it. So you can get into jhana following the four-stage technique we outline here, which builds to focusing on the rims of the nostrils. This method is found, more or less, in the Visuddhimagga.

    And there are varying interpretations of the anapanasati sutta and how it can be used to cultivate jhana. I’ll say a bit more about how this works for me, in a fairly reliable way, and also try to answer your other questions.

    I don’t have any set answer on how long one should spend on noticing the qualities of the breathing (not just its length, but in principle any of its qualities). For me I find that the move to whole body awareness can happen quite quickly — within just a few minutes. Prior to that, I’m just connecting with my breathing.

    Think about paying attention to the breathing and not the breath. The breath suggests just the body’s contact with the air or, worse, the air itself. “Breathing” suggests the movements of the body, and any sensations related to those movements.

    The breathing actually involves a lot of the body. (I’d suggest visiting that link.) I find it’s useful to learn to “defocus” our attention so that we can pay attention simultaneously to as many of those sensations as possible. This can radically slow the mind down.

    From there, it’s a short hop to defocusing a little further and being aware of the entire body. If you pay attention closely, you’ll find that the breathing affects every sensation in the body. This isn’t at all mystical. Your breathing affects how your brain works, so even if the body itself wasn’t changing on the in and out breathing, the mind paying attention to the body’s sensations is.

    So now we’re becoming more sensitive to the entire body, and to subtle, and sometimes not so subtle changes that take place on the in-breathing and out-breathing.

    And we’re ready to move on to number 5. What I do here is to notice the specific effects of the in-breathing and out-breathing on the body and mind. There’s an “energizing” effect on the in-breathing, an a calming/relaxing effect on the out-breathing. Noticing the alternation between these two phases leads to rapture (piti).

    Stage 6: appreciate all this. Really allow yourself to enjoy it. Bring some kindness into your awareness. And sukha (joy) arises. The translation above translates sukha as “pleasure,” which is not accurate.

    At this point the jhana factors are more-or-less complete, but we need more mental clarity and focus, so at this point I start to notice some of the more vivid sensations of the breathing, which could be the sensations at the rims of the nostrils. This has the effect of intensifying and focusing our concentration, and at this point I’m usually in first jhana. I’m never aware only of those sensations, though. They act as a clear central point of awareness, with the rest of the body and mind surrounding them. It’s like looking at a sunset. the sun is the focal point, but it’s important to notice everything around it. What’s the point otherwise?

    That may be as far as one can go for a while. I got “stuck” at the level of first jhana for a long time.

    But I think of stages 7 and 8 as being about the move from first to second, where inner verbal thinking ceases. In principle we’re becoming more aware of what little thinking remains, and we’re especially aware of the periods of calmness. We appreciate these and let them grow. We also continue to notice the body, and the piti and joy that are arising. As we become more absorbed in these pleasurable experiences, thought slows down and eventually ceases.

    This is how my meditation practice has evolved. It’s been a case of a natural evolution, with me then noticing that the phases I’m going through seem to resemble the anapanasati stages, and then using that awareness to bring more clarity to the process.

    You ask why not use the anapanasati stages in order? I think in general terms these stages outline a process that can be organic and that can also be a template for practice. But the mind is very complex and I think the emphasis should be more on the organic unfolding of experience guided by — but not dictated by — the kind of description found in the suttas.

  • Thank for the answer bhante.

    So far, i have been just attending to the breath and after determining the qualities of it i just stick with it at the tip of the nose or wherver it hits and focus on where it comes in and the contact of exiting. However, i need just one more thing clarified.

    After determining thr breath qualities and maintaining the attendance to it, you then expand your awareness to whole body. Now when i do that, do i still keep a focus on the nostrils to feel the in and out breathing WHILE keep somewhat a fragmented focus on the body and its sensations?

    At times, i would while following the breath would just also keep watcch of thd body, is this correct?

    Sorry for the amount of questions. Its just that i recently switched from Visuddhumagga style to an open body one and i find this one more easier(somewhat) and accessible to me.

    Thanks. With metta, mike

  • Hi, Micheal.

    Well, I’m suggesting that you might want to try not keeping your attention on the rims of your nostrils at this stage, and instead having more of a whole-body awareness. This isn’t a “fragmented” awareness, as you called it, but a “defocused” awareness.

    At some stage you will need to bring more clarity of focus, and that’s when it’s handy to pay attention to a narrower focus, such as the nostrils. You will probably start to “tune out” other sensations from the body, but they may still be present and may still require your attention (there may be some part of the body that you need to relax, for example).

    I’m not sure if I’m understanding your questions correctly, so I hope this is helpful.

  • Greetings,

    I might be wrong, but my experience tells me witnessing of breath is the only rhythmic activity of a meditator, during Anapanasati. The rest are consequences. Awareness of the body, awareness of mental processes, rapture etc etc.
    One shouldn’t stop doing one and start another!!
    The flow of conversation above is somewhat worrying. And I fear the two friends above are trying to program something that will and should happened of its own accord. Control and directing, no matter how slight, is none-meditating. Here to me, meditation will become fine mental activity.


    • Hi, Babs.

      The Anapanasati Sutta I’m familiar with includes the idea of “training” and of intentional cultivation. For example:

      “Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.’

      When the Buddha talked about “the miracle of instruction,” he described it like this:

      And what is the miracle of instruction? There is the case where a certain person gives instruction in this way: ‘Direct your thought in this way, don’t direct it in that. Attend to things in this way, don’t attend to them in that. Let go of this, enter and remain in that.’ This is called the miracle of instruction.

      There’s plenty of active engagement with experience being advocated here.

      And there’s a whole sutta devoted to discussion directed and undirected meditation.

      In one classic description of how one moves through jhana, the Buddha says:

      The thought occurs to him, ‘What if, with the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, I were to enter & remain in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance.’ Without jumping at the second jhana, he — with the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations — enters & remains in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. He sticks with that theme, develops it, pursues it, & establishes himself firmly in it.

      This is clearly described as a conscious act of working with one’s experience.

      It’s certainly true that as meditation progresses, there’s an increasing refinement of effort, but it’s best not to refrain from effort right at the start.

  • Greetings Bodhipaksa

    I dont disagree with your reflections above. However these quotes will encompass many things and are subject to many more. What I mean is, you can fit all kinds of contradictory concepts and practises – on the surface – through logical deductions from your points and quotes.

    Be careful my friend, ultimately from scripture and testimony, one can deduce an infinitum of concepts and practises.

    The wonderful and inspiring point about all great people, specially Shakya Muni is, that they stand on their own self knowledge and speak from there. This is a lesson to all of us.

    My points above are based on over 30 years of meditation. However, I accept the fact, that I might be wrong about my points. My self knowledge is limited, very limited, and so are my claims.

    In anapanasati the breath is ones mantra. Witness it while it exists. Before it almost stops – but not necessarily only then, at that point, and prior, many things can happened. These things are less relevant if they don’t consistently happened. When in every sitting the mind traverses through the same, and settles down v quickly, the body has become very pure.
    Bliss, rapture, infinite dome and witnessing the mind are all gd valid experiences. But if breath is there, we should continue witnessing the breath, we are impartial to these experiences. This is almost my experience and is not based on any scripture. Of course, new experiences might change my understandings and show me my misunderstandings.

    To me scriptures are only worth hinging yourself on, when one has that or almost that level of self experience, otherwise logical deductions can sway you into oblivion. Again, I accept the fact that I might be wrong.

    I wish you many years of fruitful meditation.

    • Well, I’ve been practicing Buddhist meditation for over 30 years, and the ultimate touchstone is the internal dynamic of my experience — learning by witnessing my practice unfold. The scriptures are part of this process, though. They’re a handy reference point against which to assess how my practice is doing, and a source of inspiration for expanding my own understanding.

      Please don’t be too quick to dismiss the Buddha’s teachings when they apparently conflict with your own understanding of what practice is. You may have too narrow a view.

  • Hi,
    Most of the sources I’ve read about anapanasati simply say to focus my attention on the sensation of air on the nostrils. This article is completely different. Is either one better or is one style wrong? Or maybe one style should come before the other. I’ve been doing the nostril observation style for a couple weeks now, and it at least allows me to ignore negative thoughts and focus on just one thing.

    • Different teachers have different emphases (and sometimes those emphases become dogmas). There are no records of the Buddha having said that there’s any one part of the body we should pay attention to while meditating. There are different effects from paying attention to different parts of the body, which mean that we have different tools available to us. I’m one of those people who holds that if you have a range of tools available to you, then learn to use them appropriately, rather than picking one tool, insisting it’s the only “correct” one, and ignoring all the others.

      Paying attention to the nostrils can be very helpful at developing clarity and focus. Paying attention to the belly can be good for calming the mind. Paying attention to the whole body as you breathe can help us cultivate the jhana factors of piti (pleasurable energy) and sukha (joy).

  • Thanks for your response
    here is the guide to concentration (mindfulness) meditation that I have used the past couple weeks:
    The website is written by a spirituality/meditation lecturer and his info is really helpful. In it, he recommends focusing on breath through the nostrils, which is why I asked the above question.

  • So are the 4 tetrads essentially describing a progression from samatha to vipassana, ie tranquillity to insight?

  • Wonderful explanation of the Buddha’s teaching on meditation here. Great commentary also. In my understanding we need not focus on the tip of the nose. Thich Nhat Hahn gives a great and insightful commentary on the Anapanasati sutta and it is in complete agreement with what is written here. So important to fully understand what the Buddha taught and to be clear on that. The above teaching is accurate and if practiced will bring fruitful meditation. Much Metta

  • In Goenka tradition the sensation of air touching the skin of upper lip should be followed on breathing. I found that subtle sensation more difficult to discern but very helpful for concentration

  • The Buddha never mentions the upper lip and the sensation of air in any of his teachings on meditation.
    This all came later added by other teachers and other traditions.
    I follow the Buddhas teaching on meditation only. His enlightenment is proof that it works and will lead to freedom. His Dhamma is the way.

  • That’s a great article. I’ve only gotten to the stage five so far. I have to refine my skills before trying to go any further. I would like to ask you, is the experience of stage five somehow close to the first jhana? Thank you.

    • Strictly speaking, stage 5 describes an activity (paying attention to pleasure in the body) rather than a state of concentration, but this stage could easily become jhana as the perception of pleasure becomes more settled and fascinating.

  • Isaurina de Deus Gomes
    February 17, 2021 10:22 am

    Thank you very mucht for your explanation. A lot of Metta!


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