Mindfulness of Breathing Meditation (Anapānasati)
extract from Buddhist Meditation
This is generally the first practice most people take up. Millions of us do it daily.
Begin by sitting quietly for a minute or so just to relax, settle down and gather your energies.
1. Feel the touch of the breathing as it flows in and out of the body. Just after each breath leaves the body note it, mentally, with a count. Count ten breaths in that way, counting from one up to ten, and then start again at one. Keep doing that for a predetermined time (start with five minutes for each stage, glancing at a timepiece placed in front of you).
2. Now note each breath before it enters, counting in the same way as before.
3. Now stop counting and simply experience the touch of the breathing as it constantly changes.
4. Now direct your attention to the point where you most feel the touch of incoming air – probably around the nostrils or the upper lip, though the exact location does not matter. Simply choose any point that seems suitable. Rest your attention continuously on the subtle sensations of the air stimulating that point.
After the meditation take a minute or so to sit quietly absorbing the experience.
Stage 1. Counting after each outward breath.
Find a good sitting position cross-legged, kneeling, or on a chair. Arrange whatever cushions and blankets you need to be comfortable. Have your hands resting together in your lap or out on your knees. It is best to close the eyes, but if you feel drowsy have them half open and rest your gaze at a point a metre or so away on the floor.
First take a minute or so to relax and settle. Then start to take your attention on to the breathing. As much as you can, let each breath come as it will without altering the natural flow. Don’t try to breathe ‘normally’ but allow the breaths to come short or long, and to feel as awkward, rough, or self-consciously controlled as they like. The breathing may be sighing or gusty at times; at others it will become smooth, subtle and hardly perceptible. Be confident that in experiencing each breath just as it is, you are practising correctly. The point is not to breathe well but to use the breath as an object of concentration (though, in fact, your growing concentration will probably make the breath gentler and calmer). The aim is to experience it exactly as it is, and any sense you are over-controlling the breath will subside in the natural course of practice. So the basic instruction is to stay with the present-moment experience of the touch of the breath in the body.
Now, to make your attention more continuous, tag each breath with a count. As the out-breath finishes, silently count: one. Feel another breath coming in and going out: that’s two. Feel another in breath, another out breath: three. Keep noting each out-breath like that and once you get up to ten, return to one and repeat the sequence.
Keep the counting sequence going throughout the first stage and stay with the breath’s sensations. Whenever you notice that your attention has wandered, bring it immediately back to the touch of the breath and continue counting. Get into the habit of returning straight away to the breath sensation; don’t waste precious momentum wondering why or how you became distracted. Have confidence that it’s fine to think no more about it. It may sometimes be useful later on to explore what happened, but for now keep returning patiently to the breath-sensation again and again. And that essentially is the practice, for now at least. As you become more familiar with this, it will become easier to stay fully absorbed in the breathing.
Stage 2. Counting before each inward breath.
Now count before each breath comes in. Count one, and experience the flow of a breath coming in and going out again. Then count two: again feel the inward and outward breath. Count three, feel once again the in- and out-breath, and continue marking each in-breath in that way until you get up to ten; then return to one and repeat the sequence.
It’s a very slight change, but it makes a difference. You’ll probably find your attention sharpening up a bit now you have to take a slightly more active stance. This stage helps establish concentration more firmly. Maintain the counting sequence as before, patiently bringing your attention back to the breath-sensation again and again when it wanders.
Over these two stages you will probably have built up a certain degree of absorption – which may not be especially noticeable since distractions may well still be present. So don’t analyse too much; just have confidence, and when the time comes move on to stage 3.
Stage 3. Experiencing the flow of the breath.
Now let go the counting method, and feel the natural flow of breathing coursing through the body as a whole. Pay special attention to the turning points where the tide of breathing turns from out to in, and from in to out. This stage generates awareness of the whole volume of the breath, helping your concentration stay continuously from breath to breath to breath.
Allow the breathing to quieten naturally, and let both your mind and your body quieten with it. Your attention and your physical posture are both likely to become calmer and more refined in quality now. As you tune in more to the body, feel its energy and include that in the meditation. When you do that it can feel as though the concentration is coming from the body as much as the mind. As you become more experienced it becomes possible to include a subtle sense of body posture throughout the practice which deepens and grounds the sense of integration.
Stage 4 – experiencing the subtle sensation of the breath
Now focus on the sensation at the point where you feel the air entering and leaving your body. Choose any point that seems right, and remain focused there. The sensation will be clearest around your nostrils or upper lip, or perhaps further in or down towards the throat.
As your breath passes this point, you may feel it as a soft, brushing sensation that is cool as it enters and warm as it leaves. Remain with that single point of sensation as uninterruptedly as you can. Be receptive to the slight changes at each phase of the in-breath, out-breath, and the turning points between. Focus so closely that you almost listen to the sensation.
Because the sensation is subtle, its quality changing each moment, following it will require some agility. Eventually the sensation may become so subtle it is almost imperceptible. It may indeed seem to disappear completely; if so, the breathing has obviously not actually disappeared but has become so subtle that the practice demands you seek it afresh. You need to soften and quieten your concentration in a new way. The mind needs to become extremely gentle and fine in order to re-establish connection with this more subtle object.
Have confidence that this will come in time. As the breathing relaxes at this new level of quietness and subtlety, the mind is able to achieve a new depth of calmness. This joyful calm marks the early beginnings of dhyana, full concentration or higher consciousness.
Ending the meditation
When you bring the practice to an end, be gentle. Open your eyes slowly, take in what has happened and sit quietly for a while before getting up. Resist any impulse to get up abruptly and do something vigorous. Rushing into the next thing will jar your mood and may leave you feeling over-sensitive or irritated.
The transition between meditation and the rest of the day, and later back again to meditation, is very important when you come to sit again. It affects the way you feel about both these situations. To rush out of meditation straight into a busy schedule can squash the good effects of the practice and prevent their being absorbed into one’s life overall. On the other hand, leaping into meditation without much preparation usually just brings a disturbed mind to the meditation. Such habits undermine the resolve to meditate by reducing its benefits and making the experience into a struggle. Really, you need not only to make suitable preparations for meditation but to notice all the transitions you make between activities in your day, so that you feel generally less rushed and more fully present in what you do.
On days when you have more time it is helpful to allow plenty of open space around meditation. Don’t rush into it, and for a while afterwards just do something quiet; let your mind absorb what has happened. Gaze out of the window, take a short stroll and let your thoughts unwind a little. This all helps the process of integration.
The essential conditions for meditation are a comfortable sitting posture and a suitable place. These conditions will enable you to sit still and uninterruptedly for some time, without minor discomforts building up and nagging you.
Essentially you need a stable and comfortable posture with an upright back. The way you achieve it does not particularly matter: you can sit in a kitchen chair, kneel on a high pile of cushions, or sit cross-legged in the traditional style. If they come fairly easily, there are longer-term benefits to cross-legged and kneeling styles, so sit that way if possible. The final chapter explores the different ways of sitting for meditation, and some of the illustrations will give some ideas for experimentation. If like most people your hips are stiff and you can’t sit cross-legged for very long, then the best posture is probably to kneel, on a thick blanket, and sitting on a stool or several cushions. The blanket under the legs helps prevent them getting numb, and the high pile of cushions is important for most normal people in helping to prevent the back from slumping. These points apply to cross-legged positions too – have plenty of cushions. And have a folded blanket under the legs if possible. Certainly use a straight-backed chair if it seems better, but it’s not good to lean the weight against the backrest unless you actually have back trouble, because of the tendency to slump, which causes mental dullness.
You need a quiet place for meditation, and it’s best if you can be certain that there won’t be any disturbances. For example, it’s a good idea to turn off your phone. Guaranteed quiet will make a considerable difference to your ability to relax and let go into meditation, so it’s worth going to some lengths to get it. The effort of concentration makes you extra sensitive to distractions, so music or a conversation in a nearby room is likely to become a source of irritation. Avoid such things as much as possible, but don’t get too fussy about it because there will always be external distractions of some kind. Even alone, in the depths of the countryside, there are all kinds of sounds for your mind to latch on to. So once you have eliminated all the distractions you can, be patient, relax and let go the desire for perfect quiet; allow the sounds to come and go as they wish in the background while you focus on the breathing.
If you intend to take up meditation as a regular practice, then you will soon need more personal guidance than this book can provide. You can find out about Buddhist meditation classes in your area and also contact fellow practitioners who follow the methods outlined in this book.
It is important to read the basic instructions and make sure you understand clearly what you are supposed to be doing in each stage, so that you won’t have to stop in the middle and check. Timing the stages on your own might seem tricky; timer devices or applications are available that some people find helpful, and I often use one myself. But it is not necessary to have exactly equal stages, and it’s easy enough to use some kind of timepiece. If it is distracting to open the eyes to check the time then it’s fine simply to move on to the next stage of the practice when ready. Once concentration feels sufficiently established in one stage, or enough time seems to have passed, just go on to the next stage. If a stage has timed out but concentration isn’t as good as expected, it is usually better to move on to the next stage. The various stages are ways to work on concentration from different angles, so it’s useful to gain experience in all four stages. You’ll often find that despite a difficult start, a later stage has a surprisingly concentrating effect. In meditation as in the rest of life, you can never assume you know what’s going to happen.