Mindfulness of Breathing in 16 Stages

Bhikkhus, when mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it is of great fruit and great benefit … And how? … here, a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.

1. ‘Breathing in long, s/he understands, ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, s/he understands, ‘I breathe out long.’

2. ‘Breathing in (or breathing out) short, s/he understands, ‘I breathe in (or out) short.’

In the first tetrad the experience of body (kāya), the basis for the meditation, is made increasingly familiar through repeated re-establishment of awareness in the breathing. These substages are equivalent to the initial counting stages of the practice as explained in Chapter 1: counting after the more ‘relaxed’ outgoing breath and counting before the more ‘energizing’ incoming breath. You can understand ‘long’ and ‘short’ in the text as referring literally to the length of the breath. The simple exercise of assessing the length of each breath will definitely help to keep awareness on it. This assessment is also aided by the counting.

You may also find that assessment useful for checking how aware you actually are of each individual breath. When you are paying full attention, you notice a breath’s detail; and when appreciating the sensation in a detailed way, you observe that the breath feels ‘long’ because it has noticeable duration in time. The experience is also generally more relaxed, which enhances the sense of duration. On the other hand, when the practice deteriorates and you become somewhat insensitive and unaware, the breathing acquires an automatic in-out quality that feels ‘short’: there is no appreciation of detail; the experience makes little impact and is soon forgotten. This is also the ‘short’ breath, and noticing the distinction is an excellent way to stay focused.

To summarize: instructions 1) and 2) together make up the first stage as you check the quality of attention to each breath. Once you have become settled, this establishes the basis for the remaining stages of the practice, which are called ‘trainings’ from this point on in the sutta. In the first of these, the sensation of the volume of breath moving in the body is distinguished from the general body sensation:

3. ‘I shall breathe in (and breathe out) experiencing the whole body [of the breath].’

You now give attention to the whole breath body as in the third, no- counting stage of the basic mindfulness of breathing meditation. You also make sure that it is actually the touch sensation of the breathing you are experiencing, as distinct from a thought about the breath or a sensation that actually comes from somewhere else in the body.

4. ‘I shall breathe in (and breathe out) tranquilising the bodily formation (kāyasan ̇khāra).’

Here you allow the touch sensation of the breath at the nose-tip, upper lip, navel – or wherever you focus it – to relax the body at that location and then to relax the whole body. The effect of this is to further calm the breathing, which becomes very still and conveys a new depth of peace to the mind.

Note that the air cannot be experienced directly; throughout this section the emphasis is on the sensation of the breath as it touches the body.

Second comes a set of four trainings incorporating awareness of feeling (vedāna) into the meditation. Feeling is important as a connector in ānāpānasati meditation: it allows an intimacy that helps you to know and to direct the mind. Here the first two instructions are about connecting with the seeds of dhyanic rapture and bliss. These reflect the early awakenings of dhyāna as you move beyond the five hindrances into deeper integration.

5. ‘I shall breathe in (and out) experiencing rapture’ (prīti).’

Contacting feeling helps you to enjoy the meditation. You become inspired and feel creative in doing it. This leads into, and can actively be directed towards, the beginnings of dhyanic rapture.

6. ‘I shall breathe in (and out) experiencing bliss (sukha).’

The concentration can deepen and becomes very peaceful if you can let go of attachment to the excitement of prītiSo here the training is in finding a new appreciation of the deep joy of sukha and diving into that while letting go of prīti. (We looked at the relationship between rapture and bliss in Chapter 6.)

Now come two instructions that quieten the mind further as you get even more deeply and intimately immersed.

7. ‘I shall breathe in (and out) experiencing the mental formation.’

Feeling does much to form your general state, your mood: the word is citta, a process the Buddha calls here ‘the mental formation’.71 With the arising of prīti and sukha, the experience of feeling has deepened. Now with each in- and out-breath you familiarize yourself with its continual effect on the mind’s general state, with the continual responses of liking and disliking and the constant tendency for these responses to turn into craving and aversion.

8. ‘I shall breathe in (and out) tranquilising the mental formation.’

From this arises a new intimacy and trust in which liking and disliking lose their power and your mood becomes profoundly relaxed.

Third comes awareness of feeling having deepened the experience of citta, the heart/mind, and there follow four instructions relating to mindfulness of its various moods and states. Here the truthful experience of these mental states becomes crucial in the deepening of integration. This emphasis on truth sparks the beginnings of liberation.

First come two instructions: knowing the mind and gladdening it.

9. ‘I shall breathe in (and out) experiencing the heart/mind.’

Here you acknowledge the truth of your actual mental (heart) state, here and now. The content of each individual thought becomes clear. Though the effect is to deepen śamathathe focus on the truth of experience sounds a preliminary note of insight (vipaśyanā). You are coming more and more into a position where you can enquire into what is really happening.

10. ‘I shall breathe in (and out) gladdening the heart/mind.’

Knowing and accepting the truth of your experience, especially its feeling aspect, brings some independence from its ups and downs. This strengthens the ability to exert a positive influence on the mind. You now train in gladdening the mind, encouraging its positive qualities, and align yourself with prāmodya, the joy of engagement with ethical and spiritual practiceYou rejoice in your amazing potential and present good qualities. (We shall look at prāmodya later in this chapter in the context of meditation on conditionality.)

11. ‘I shall breathe in (and out) concentrating the heart/mind.’

Feeling good about what is true enables a more wholehearted involvement and thus concentrates the whole being.

Then, as you bring the mind together, you are able to start freeing it.

12. ‘I shall breathe in (and out) liberating the heart/mind.’

Acknowledging the truth, you begin letting go of identification with moods and mental states as ‘mine’, as though they somehow belong to you. This is the beginning of the vipaśyanā process.

The fourth and final tetrad exclusively concerns vipaśyanā – in terms of both spiritual death and spiritual rebirth – as you progressively let go of clinging to fixed notions of self and world and align with the true nature of experience. Here each breath is accompanied by a contemplation that encourages direct seeing of an aspect of the unfolding Awakening experience.

13. ‘I shall breathe in (and out) contemplating impermanence.’

Things such as body and breath sensations come to an end in time, so reflecting on their impermanence may entail some questioning of the extent to which, as you experience each breath, you are holding on to an idea of its duration over the past, present and future. You might question whether your perceptions of them persist unchanged or whether new perceptions arise to replace them. If new ones arise, can you see that happening? When you reflect and see that experiences don’t last – because they are impermanent – you may be forced to recognize that you don’t actually know what it means for something to persist, let alone to pass from the present into the past. This may seem like riddle-making, but in meditation this kind of enquiry arises out of deep and honest wonderment at the primary, unquestioned facts of our experience. It has the power to amaze, humble, relax and give us confidence in the profound simplicity that unfolds from this enquiry.

14. ‘I shall breathe in (and out) contemplating fading away.’ 15. ‘I shall breathe in (and out) contemplating cessation.’
16. ‘I shall breathe in (and out) contemplating relinquishment.’

In these final stages, the truth emerging from this engagement with impermanence enables you to contemplate the possibility of standing back from perpetuating all reactive tendencies whatsoever. From there it is

possible to contemplate bringing involvement in that kind of activity to a complete standstill. Finally, it is possible to completely let go of all identification with saṃsāra, the state that perpetuates ignorance and the deluded emotionality springing from it. These contemplations are also inspired by the profound liberation that is simultaneous with the relinquishment of saṃsāra.