I believe that breath meditation is the best place for people to start a regular meditation practice; it is the most basic, foundational, beginner meditation practice. Here are some breath meditation instructions for beginners, excerpted from different books, different teachers, and different lineages.
The instructions that I give my class are at the top, and, after that are excerpts from various books. They become redundant and in some cases, slightly contradictory – there are various different ways to “do” the technique of breath meditation, which are mostly compatible with each other, but sometimes not. But, the more of these excerpts you read, the more deeply you will understand how to do breath meditation, a core, central, powerful practice.
Instructions for Breath Meditation
* Settle in a meditative posture
-- Body relaxed and hanging off of an upright and extended spine, shoulder blades moving down your back. Make sure that your belly is uncompressed and able to breathe fully and deeply.
-- Take a couple of intentional hard deep breaths, as a way of marking your transition from normal everyday life into a ritual of sacred transformation.
-- Overtly set your intention for the meditation - that you intend to bring your awareness to your breath and not get lost in thinking for the duration of the sitting period.
-- Take a moment to enjoy the feeling of open alert repose.
* Make contact with feeling of respiration. Bring your entire awareness to that feeling. Feel your breath either
-- Rising and falling in lower abdomen, three finger widths below navel, and three finger widths into the body (this is called the "hara" in Japanese, the "dan tien" in Chinese, and the "koth" in Sufism)
-- In the rings at the opening of the nostrils, just inside the chamber of the nostrils, and in the area just below the nostrils
* Breathe through your nose, with mouth closed.
* Allow your breath to flow in and out freely, effortlessly, spontaneously, normally, and naturally. Relax into each breath. Do not try to change, regulate, or manipulate the breath in any way. Just notice it as it is, let go, and allow the process go along at its own rhythm. If you do notice yourself regulating the breath, let go, and allow that too.
* Actually feel and have an intimate and embodied experience of the inhalation, the exhalation, and the neutral waiting space between breaths. See if sustained awareness beings perception of ever deeper and richer levels of subtlety to the physical, tactile sensations of the breath. See if you can be mindful of subtle sensations - expansion and contraction, pressure and release, and constantly changing velocity and temperature.
* Constantly bring your awareness back to the feeling of the breath in the present moment. Return again and again to the feeling of the respiration at this exact instant, in the direct immediate now.
* Rest your awareness on your breathing - lovingly yet persistently, softly yet precisely, with relaxation yet with focus. Let your awareness merge with the breath, let it become the breath. Give yourself completely over to your breathing.
* If mind wanders off into thoughts, plans, memories, other physical sensations, wondering what you are doing, or anything else that is not the feeling of the respiration - gently let go of that other object of mind, and return to awareness of your breath. Think of it as like training a puppy to sit in its box - do not be harsh, be patient and kind, but do be persistent and intentional in picking the puppy/mind up and repeatedly bringing it back.
Do your best to let the whole inner and outer universes fall away from the one point where you are feeling your breath. If you find it helpful, you may want to say some words inside your mind to briefly make an internal label for the type of distraction that has come up for you:
-- "hear in", for thinking that is internal conversations, analysis, evaluations, and music stuck in your head
as a way of helping you to let go of it, of letting it blow away like dry leaves in an autumn wind. Then gently bring your awareness back to the breath.
-- "hear out", for words and sounds in the outside world that you hear with your actual ears
-- "body", for body sensations other than the breath
-- "see in", for images and movies that you see in your thoughts, in your mind's eye
-- "see out", for actual images that you see in the external world, if your eyes are open
Sometimes bringing your mind back is relatively difficult, and sometime it is relatively easy. Either way, give it the best you are able. And any time you notice that your mind has wandered, rather than get down on yourself, it is a cause to celebrate - that is something that you would not have even noticed if you weren't meditating. It is a sign that you are actually doing the technique correctly, that you are actually meditating.
* Pay special attention to the gaps between breaths.
-- Aim towards developing as much continuity of awareness as you can
-- Try to anchor your attention to the spot where you watch your breath (i.e. your belly, your nostrils) between breaths, even when there is not as much action or movement.
* If you are having a difficult time concentrating the mind, try counting your breaths to ten.
-- Count once per breath, at the end of the exhalation
-- If you reach ten, count the breaths back down to one (nine, eight, seven, etc)
-- If you lose count of what number you are on, start again at one.
-- Do not make a big deal out reaching ten, or of starting again. Just keep your mind resting on your breath as much as you can, and use counting as a tool to pay attention.
* When your practice time ends, emanate the wish "May All Beings Be Happy".
Instructions from Well Known Meditation Teachers
To use your breathing to nurture mindfulness, just tune into the feeling of it - the feeling of the breath coming into your body, and the feeling of the breath leaving your body. That is all. Just feeling the breath. Breathing and knowing that you are breathing. This does not mean deep breathing or forcing your breathing, or trying to feel something special, or wondering whether you are doing it right. It does not mean thinking about your breathing, either. It is just a bare bones awareness of the breath moving in and the breath moving out ... Great adventures await you if you give yourself a little time to string moments of awareness together, breath by breath, moment by moment. Try staying with one full inbreath as it comes in, one full outbreath as it goes out, keeping your mind open and free for just this moment, just this breath. Abandon all ideas of getting somewhere or having anything happen. Just keep returning to the breath when the mind wanders, stringing moments of mindfulness together, breath by breath.
-- Jon Kabat-Zinn, in "Wherever You Go, There You Are"
In breath meditation, the mind can be relaxed and spacious; we don't have to fabricate anything. Take a few deep, easy breaths and release them. Allow the breath to become natural so you're not trying to force or control it in any way. Notice the place where you feel the breath most distinctly. It may be the in-and-out movements of the air at the nostrils. You may feel a tingling or vibration, or changes in temperature. You may feel the breath most distinctly with the rising and falling of the chest or the abdomen: stretching ... pressure ... tension ... release.
Wherever you feel it most natural, most easy, allow your mind to rest in that place and feel the breath. As you feel the breath, you can make a silent mental note to sharpen the concentration: "in" as you feel the breath go in, and "out" as you feel it leave your body. Or "rising" and "falling", with the sensation in your chest or belly. Very gently, very quietly in your mind, just support the awareness of the actual sensations. You don't need to make the breath special. It doesn't have to be long or different from however it is, however it changes. It's happening anyway, so simply be aware of it, one breath at a time.
You may feel your attention wandering. You may realize that you are lost in thought, planning, remembering, whatever. Perhaps it's been quite some time since you last felt the breath consciously. It doesn't matter. You don't have to judge or analyze, or try to figure out how you've got to where you've got to. Don't worry. See if you can gently let go of whatever the distraction has been and simply begin again. Gently let go and return the attention to the actual feeling of the breath. This act of beginning again is the essential art of meditation practice; over and over and over, we begin again. You may find your attention wandering constantly. It doesn't matter. The mind has been trained to be distracted. In a relaxed and patient manner, just let go, reconnect, come back to the feeling of the breath at this very moment, the natural, uncontrived, normal breath.
You don't have to worry about even the breath that you've just taken, or the very next one to come. There's no comparison, no anticipation - it's just the breath right in this moment, as it's happening. You can settle the mind there. Feel it. Don't try to hold on to the breath. You may discover that there's a pause or gap between the inbreath and the outbreath, or between the out breath and the next inbreath. If you find such a pause, you can allow the attention to settle in the body. Simply feel your body sitting there. Then allow the next breath to come naturally. End the session by ... seeing if you can being some of this quality of presence and connection to the next activity that you perform in the day.
-- Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, in "Commit To Sit: Tricycle's 28-Day Meditation Challenge"
Feel the sensations of the breath as the air passes the nostrils or upper lip. The sensations of the in-breath appear simply and naturally. Notice how the out-breath appears. Or you might choose to feel the movement of your chest or abdomen as the breath enters and leaves your body. Wherever you choose to follow the sensations of breathing, whether the in and out at the nostrils or the movement of the chest or abdomen, train your awareness to connect clearly with the first moment of the beginning in-breath. Then sustain the attention for the duration of just that one in-coming breath. Connect again at the beginning of the out-breath, and sustain your attention till the end. It is important not to become overly ambitious. We all have the capacity to feel one breath completely. But if we try to do more than that, if we have the idea that we are going to be mindful of our breathing for half an hour, then that is much too much. To sustain unbroken attention for that amount of time is far beyond the capacity of our mind, and so we quickly become discouraged. Connect and sustain for just one breath, and then one more. In this way you can work well within your capacity, and your mind will begin to concentrate simply and easily.
At times other objects will arise - physical sensations, thoughts, images, emotions. Notice how all these appearances arise and change in the open awareness of mind. Often we become distracted, lost in the display of experience, no longer mindful. As soon as you remember, come back to the simple state of awareness. It can be helpful in the beginning to focus primarily, although not exclusively, on the breath. Focusing in this way helps stabilize attention, keeping us mindful and alert. Bringing the mind back to a primary object, like the breath, takes a certain quality of effort, and that effort builds energy. It is like doing a repetitive exercise to develop muscular strength. You keep doing it ,and the body gets stronger. Coming back to the primary object is mental exercise. We come back to the breath, again and again, and slowly the mind grows stronger and more stable.
Noting should be done very softly, like a whisper in the mind, but with enough precision and accuracy so that it connects directly with the object. For example, you might label each breath, silently saying "in, out" or "rising, falling." In addition, you may also note every other appearance that arises in meditation. When thoughts arise, note that. If physical sensations become predominant, note that. If sounds or images come into the foreground, note hearing or seeing.
-- Joseph Goldstein, in "Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom"
Bring your attention to the motion of your breath as it enters and leaves, noting the full passage of each in-breath and out-breath, from beginning to end ... If you can, notice the subtle sensations of the breath as it comes and goes. Be aware of each in-breath and out-breath as it passes by, just as a doorman watches each person who comes and goes through a door. Attend to the feeling of the breath. Do not try to imagine it or visualize it. Note the sensation of the breath just as it is, exactly as you feel it .
The sensations you feel will change - you may sometimes feel the breath like the light touch of a feather, like a dull throb, or as an intense point of pressure, or in countless other ways. There is no "right" way for the breath to feel; just be aware of what is. Each time you notice your mind has wandered to other thoughts, or is caught by background noises, bring your attention back to the easy, natural rhythm of your breathing. Do not try to control your breath. Simply watch it. Fast or slow, shallow or deep, the nature of the breath does not matter. Your full attention to it is what counts.
If you have trouble keeping your mind on the breath, count each one up to ten, then start over again at one. Or, to anchor your mind on your breath, you can occasionally make a strong, deliberate inhalation and exhalation. Then let your breath return to its normal rate. Whenever you realize you are thinking about something else, return your awareness to your breath. Do not try to fight off thoughts - just let them go. If sounds distract you, do the same: let them be, and simply start watching your breath again. If aches or itches bother you, slowly move to ease them if you absolutely must. But keep your mind on breathing while you do it. Your mind will wander, and when you first start to meditate you may be acutely aware of how active it is. Do not worry about it. Just keep returning your attention to your breath, letting go of whatever the mind wanders to. This is the essence of concentration meditation: letting your thoughts go.
-- Ram Dass, in "Journey Of Awakening"
Bringing your full attention to the present-time experience, acknowledge the full range of phenomena that are happening in the moment. Thinking is happening; hearing is happening; seeing, tasting, smelling, and physical and emotional sensations are all present. Allowing the experiences to stay as they are, redirect your attention to the sensations of the breath. Let the other sense experiences fall to the background as you bring the awareness of breathing to the foreground.
Take a few moments to investigate where you feel the breath most easily; usually this is either at the base of the nostrils of in the rising and falling of the abdomen. Find the place where you feel the breath coming and going, and use that as the point of focus. Choose one place and stick with it; don't jump back and forth between nose and belly. It is not necessary to follow the breath in and out. Breathing in, know that you are breathing in. Breathing out, know that you are breathing out.
Of course, you will quickly realize that your attention will not stay with the breath; the attention will be drawn back into thinking over and over. In the beginning, the practice of meditation is often just the practice of training the attention to return to the breath. Each time the attention wanders back to the thinking aspect of the mind, gently redirect it back to the breath. It is important to understand that this will happen over and over. It doesn't mean that you are doing anything wrong or that you can't meditate ... Bring the attention back to the simple experience of the breath over and over. Breathing in, feel that the breath is coming into the body. Breathing out, feel that the breath is leaving the body. Each time the attention wanders into thinking or to another sense experience, acknowledge that that has happened, noting the thinking or hearing or seeing, and then again return the attention to the awareness of the breath.
While you are training the mind in present-time awareness of the breath, with the mind's almost constant wandering and returning, it is important to bring a quality of kindness and understanding to the practice. Try to the be friendly towards your experience. Of course the attention wanders. Try not to take it personally; it is not your fault. That's just the what the untrained mind does. It will take some time and perseverance to train the attention to stay with the chosen object of awareness. It is helpful to be patient and kind to yourself in the process.
-- Noah Levine, in "Against The Stream"
Focus on your breathing. You can do this either by focusing on the openings of your nostrils, where you can feel subtle sensations as the breath enters and leaves your body, or by focusing on the in-and-out movements of the abdomen with each breath. Chose one of those two places, and keep your mind, your attention, on the sensations you can feel at that place during each inhalation and exhalation of your breath. Bring your mind back to this place every time it wanders away.
If you wish you can count your breaths. You may find this helpful to keep your mind concentrated. You count each full inhalation and exhalation of the breath as one. You can say to yourself, "Breathing in ... breathing out, one ... breathing in ... breathing out, two ...", and so on. Count up to ten breaths, then start again at one. If you mind wanders in the middle of the counting, go back and start again at one. Continue counting in rounds of ten breaths, and bringing your attention back to the breath every time it wanders away. If you mind becomes more stable and is able to stay focused on the breath without needing to count, then you can dispense with the counting.
Don't try to control your breath; just breathe normally and gently. Inevitable, thoughts will appear, and your attention will be distracted by them, but as soon as you realize this has happened, bring your mind back to the breath. Learn to have a neutral attitude towards your thoughts, being neither attracted nor repulsed. In other words, do not react with dislike, worry, excitement, or clinging to any thought, image, or feeling that arises. Merely notice its existence and return your attention to the breath. Even if you have to do this fifty times a minute, don't feel frustrated! Be patient and persistent; eventually your thoughts will subside. It may be helpful to think that your mind is like the sky, and thoughts are like clouds. Clouds come and go in the sky - they do not stay long, not do they alter the natural stillness and spaciousness of the sky. In the same way, thoughts come and go in the clear space of your mind; they are transient, momentary. If you can simply notice them and let them go, bringing your attention again and again to the breath, the thoughts will disappear on their own.
When your skill has developed and your ability to avoid distractions has increased, you can take your alertness a step further. Make mental notes of the nature of the distractions that arise, such as "thinking", "body sensations", "hearing", etc. As soon as you have noted a distraction, let it go, recalling its impermanent nature.
Be content to stay in the present. Accept whatever frame of mind you are in and whatever arises in your mind, without judging it as good or bad. Have no wish to be somewhere else, to be doing something else, or even to feel some other way. Be content, just as you are.
-- Sangye Khadro Kathleen McDonald, in “How To Meditate”
Breathing, which seems so mundane and uninteresting at first glance, is actually an enormously complex and fascinating procedure. It is full of delicate variations, if you look. There is inhalation and exhalation, long breath and short breath, deep breath, shallow breath, smooth breath and ragged breath. These categories combine with one another in subtle and intricate ways. Observe the breath closely. Really study it. You find enormous variations and constant cycle of repeated patterns. It is like a symphony. Do not observe just the bare outline of the breath. There is more to see here than just an in-breath and an out-breath. Every breath has a beginning, middle, and end. Every inhalation goes through a process of birth, growth, and death, and every exhalation does the same. The depth and speed of your breathing changes according to your emotional state, the thought that flows through your mind and the sounds you hear. Study these phenomena. You will find them fascinating.
This does not mean, however, that you should be sitting there having little conversations with yourself inside your head: "There is a short ragged breath and there is a deep long one. I wonder what is next?" No, that is not meditation. That is thinking. You will find this sort of thing happening, especially in the beginning. This, too, is a passing phase. Simply note the phenomenon and return your attention toward the observation of the sensation of breath. Mental distractions will happen again. But return your attention to your breath again, and again, and again, and again, for as long as it takes until they do not happen anymore.
-- Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, in "Mindfulness In Plain English"
When you focus your attention on the breath ignore any thought, memory, sound, smell, taste, etc., and focus your attention exclusively on the breath, nothing else ... In spite of your concerted effort to keep the mind on your breathing, the mind may wander away. It may go to past experiences and suddenly you may find yourself remembering places you have visited, people you met, friends not seen for a long time, a book you read long ago, the taste of food you ate yesterday, and so on. As soon as you notice that your mind is no longer on your breath, mindfully bring it back to it and anchor it there. However, in a few moments you may be caught up again thinking how to pay your bills, to make a telephone call to you friend, write a letter to someone, do your laundry, buy your groceries, go to a party, plan your next vacation, and so forth. As soon as you notice that your mind is not on your subject, bring it back mindfully.
-- Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, in "Mindfulness In Plain English"
Breathing is a present-time process. By that we mean it is always occurring in the here-and-now. We do not normally live in the present, of course. We spend most of our time caught up in memories of the past, or leaping ahead to the future, full of worries and plans. The breath has none of that 'other-timeness'. When we truly observe the breath, we are automatically placed in the present ...Mindfulness of breathing is a present-time awareness. When you are doing it properly, you are aware only of what is occurring in the present. You do not look back and you do not look forward. You forget about the last breath, and you do not anticipate the next one. When the inhalation is just beginning, you do not look ahead to the end of that inhalation. You do not skip forward to the exhalation which is to follow. You stay right there with what is actually taking place. The inhalation is beginning, and that is what you pay attention to; that and nothing else.
-- Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, in "Mindfulness In Plain English"
The focusing of attention on the breath is perhaps the most universal of the many hundreds of meditation subjects used worldwide ... Breathing meditation can quiet the mind, open the body, and develop a great power of concentration. The breath is available to us at any time of day and in any circumstance. When we have learned to use it, the breath becomes a support for awareness throughout our life.
Yet even with interest and a strong desire to steady our attention, distractions will arise. Distractions are the natural movement of mind. Distractions arise because our mind and heart are not initially clear or pure. Mind is more like muddy or turbulent water. Each time an enticing image or an interesting memory floats by, it is our habit to react, to get entangled, or to get lost. When painful images or feelings arise, it is out habit to avoid them and unknowingly distract ourselves, out of fear and reaction. In many of us these forces are so great that after a few unfamiliar moments of calm, our mind rebels. Again and again, restlessness, busyness, plans, unfelt feelings, all interrupt our focus. Working with these distractions, steadying the canoe, letting the waves pass by, and coming back again and again in a quiet and collected way, is at the heart of breathing meditation.
As we give ourselves to the art of concentration over the weeks and months, we discover that our concentration slowly begins to settle by itself ... As we continue, the development of concentration brings us closer to life, like the focusing of a lens. When we look at pond water in a cup, it appears clear and still. But under the simplest microscope, it shows itself to be alive with creatures and movement. In the same way, the more deeply we pay attention, the less solid out breath and body become. Every place we feel breath in our body can come alive with subtle vibrations, movement, tingles, flow. The steady power of our concentration shows each part of our life to be in change and flux, like a river even as we feel it. As we learn to let go into the present, the breath breathes itself, allowing the flow of sensations in the body to move and open. There can come an openness and ease. Like a skilled dancer, we allow the breath and body to float and move unhindered, yet all the while being present to enjoy the opening.
-- Jack Kornfield, in "A Path With Heart"
Bring your attention to your breathing from three vantage points: First, notice the sensation of your breath going in/out of your nostrils or mouth. Second, as you breath, pay attention to the rise/fall of your chest. Third, notice the rise/fall of your belly as you breath. Pick the vantage point that seems to be the easiest for you to focus on. Follow the breath for its full duration, from the start to finish. Notice that the breath happens on its own, without any conscious effort. Some breaths may be slow, some fast, some shallow or deep. You don't need to control the breath, you just need to notice it. If you find it helpful, you can say "Inhale" to yourself on each in-breath, and "Exhale" on each out-breath.
Each time your mind wanders away from the breath (and this will happen many times!), notice where it goes and then gently bring your attention back to the feeling of the breath going in and out. When the mind wanders, you can make a mental note of it. For example, if you drift away from your breath to thinking about the future, you can say to yourself "planning, planning." If your mind is pulled to a sensation of pain in your body, you can say to yourself "pain, pain." Or, if you notice you're focused on something worrisome from the past, you can say "worry, worry" and then gently bring your attention back to the present moment - noticing the breath. Your mind may wander hundreds of times or more - that's ok and quite natural. Your “job” is to catch yourself when you've wandered and to gently bring your focus back to the breath every time, without judging yourself for how "well" or "poorly" you're doing the exercise.
-- Kimberly Pratt, in "Mindfulness: What It Is and How To Do It"
First, settle the body in a posture where it is imbued with three qualities: relaxation, stillness, and vigilance. Be at ease. Be still. Be vigilant. These three qualities of the body are to be maintained throughout your meditation session. Once you have settled your body with these three qualities, take three slow, gentle, deep breaths, breathing in and out through the nostrils. Let your awareness permeate your entire body as you do so, noting any sensations that arise in relation to the respiration. Luxuriate in these breaths, as if you were receiving a gentle massage from within.
Now settle your respiration in its natural flow. Continue breathing through your nostrils, noting the sensations of the respiration wherever they arise within your body. Observe the entire course of each in-breath and out-breath, noting whether it is long or short, deep or shallow, slow or fast. Don't impose any rhythm on your breathing. Attend closely to the respiration, but without willfully influencing it in any way. Don't even prefer one kind of a breath over another, for example, don't assume that willful breathing is necessarily better than irregular breathing. Let the body breathe as if you were fast asleep, but mindfully vigilant.
Thoughts are bound to arise involuntarily, and your attention may also be pulled away by noises and other stimuli from your environment. When you note that you have become distracted, instead of tightening up and forcing your attention back to the breath, simply let go of those thoughts and distractions. Especially with each out-breath, relax your body, release extraneous thoughts, and happily let your attention settle back into the body. When you see that your mind has wandered, don't get upset. Just be happy that you've noticed the distraction, and gently return to the breath. Again and again, counteract the agitation and turbulence of the mind by relaxing more deeply, not by contracting your body or mind. If any tension builds up in your shoulders, face, or eyes, release it. With each exhalation, release involuntary thoughts as if they were dry leaves blown away by a soft breeze. Relax deeply through the entire course of exhalation, and continue to relax, as the next breath flows in effortlessly like the tide. Breathe so effortlessly that you feel as if your body were being breathed by your environment.
Now shift your emphasis to the cultivation of attentional stability. This is the ability to sustain the focus of your attention without becoming fragmented or derailed by the force of distracting thoughts and sensations. With this aim, instead of being mindful of the various sensations of respiration throughout your whole body, focus your attention just on the sensations of the expansion and contraction of your abdomen with each in-breath and out-breath. As you did before, note the duration of each inhalation exhalation, and observe the duration of the pauses between breaths. Out of sheer habit, unintentional thoughts are bound to cascade through your mind like a waterfall. One way of stemming this relentless stream of ideation is to count your breaths.
Try that now, by counting "one" at the beginning of your first inhalation, then attending closely to the sensations of the respiration throughout the rest of the inhalation and the entire exhalation. Count "two" at the beginning of the next breath, and continue in this way for as long as you find it helpful. Let these mental counts be brief, so that your attention to the counting does not override your awareness of the breath itself. The objective of counting the breath is to insert brief reminders into the practice - remembering to remember - so that you don't get carried away with distracting thoughts. Attending to these mental markers at regular intervals in the course of the respiration is like taking note of milestones on the side of a country road, letting you know by their presence that you are on the right track, or by their absence that you have wandered off your chosen route.
This phase of the practice, however, is primarily concerned with mindfulness of breathing, not mindfulness of counting. It is easy to maintain just enough continuity of attention to keep track of counting, while between counts, the wind wanders off on its own, like a dog without a leash. Let the counting remind you to keep your attention focused on the tactile sensations of the breath, which change from moment to moment. After counting the breath at beginning of the inhalation, let your mind be as conceptually silent as possible for the remainder of the in-breath. And during the out-breath, release any involuntary thoughts that have cropped up. When your attention stabilizes to such an extent that you no longer experience lapses of attention but remain continuously engages with each inhalation and exhalation, you can stop counting. That temporary crutch has served its purpose.
Meditation is a balancing act between attention and relaxation. Mastering this requires working to counter the natural reflex of trying harder, or clamping down, when you see that your mind has becomes distracted. Instead, as soon as your see that your mind has wandered, released the effort of clinging to the distracting thought or physical sensation, return to the breath, and relax more deeply. Remember that the main point of such attentional training is not to stop thoughts from arising. Rather, it is first to relax the body and mind, then to cultivate the stability of sustaining attention continuously on your chosen object (in this case, the breath).
Thoughts are bound to arise, though. Simply do your best not to be carried away by them. The kind of awareness cultivated here is called bare attention, in which the mind is fully focused on the sensory impressions appearing to it, moment to moment, rather than getting caught up in conceptual and emotional responses to those stimuli. As you attend to the abdominal sensations of breathing, mental images of your body, based on visual memory, are likely to arise together with the bodily sensations themselves. Recognize the difference between the tactile sensations of the breath as they appear in bare attention, as opposed to the mental images of what you think your body looks like, which are superimposed by your conceptual mind. As soon as you note the presence of these mental images, release them and direct your attention solely to the immediate, tactile experiences of breathing.
Having established a foundation of relaxation and stability, we shift the emphasis to cultivating vividness of attention. It is important that stability is not gained at the expense of relaxation, and that the increase of vividness does not coincide with a decrease of stability. The relationship among these there qualities can be likened to the roots, trunk, and foliage of a tree. As your practice grows, the roots of relaxation go deeper, the trunk of stability gets stronger, and the foliage of vividness reaches higher. You can shift the emphasis to vividness by elevating the focus of attention, and directing it to a subtler object. Direct your attention to the tactile sensations of your breath at the apertures of your nostrils or above your upper lip, wherever your feel the in-flow and out-flow or your breath. Elevating the focus of attention helps to induce vividness, and attending to a subtle object enhances it further. Observe these sensations at the gateway of the respiration, even between breaths. There is an ongoing flow of tactile sensations in the area of the nostrils and upper lip, so sustain your attention there as continuously as possible.
As your mind calms, you may find that your respiration becomes subtler, and this results in fainter sensations of breathing. The further you progress in this practice, the subtler the breath becomes. At times it may becomes so subtle that you can't detect it at all. This challenges you to enhance the vividness of attention. In other words, you have to pay closer and close attention to these sensations in order to stay mentally engaged with the breath. There's a kind of biofeedback process at work here. If your mind becomes distracted and you get caught up in involuntary thoughts, your breathing will become coarser, resulting in stronger sensations, which are easier to detect. But as your mind calms down again, the breathing and the sensations that go with it become finer, and this once again challenges you to heighten the degree of vividness. So, if the breath becomes so subtle that you can't detect the sensations of it its flow, quiet your mind and observe more carefully. As your arouse the vividness of attention, eventually the sensations of the breath will become evident again. On the periphery of your awareness, you may still note other sensations throughout your body, as well as sounds and so on. Just let them be, without trying to block them out, and focus your attention single-pointedly on the sensations around the apertures of your nostrils.
-- Alan Wallace, in "The Attention Revolution"
The Buddha prescribed various techniques for concentrating the mind, each suited to the particular person who came to him for training. The most suitable technique for exploring inner reality, the technique the Buddha himself practiced, is that of anapana-sati, "awareness of respiration".
Respiration is an object of attention that is readily available to everyone, because we all breathe from the time of birth until the time of death. It is universally accessible, universally acceptable object of meditation. To begin the practice, sit down, assume a comfortable, upright posture, and close your eyes. Find a quiet room with little to distract their attention. Turning from the outer world to the world within, you will find that the most prominent activity is your own breathing - give attention to this object, the breath entering and leaving the nostrils.
This is not a breathing exercise; it is an exercise in awareness. The effort is not to control the breath but instead to remain conscious of it as it naturally is; long or short, heavy or light, rough or subtle. For as long as possible one fixes the attention on the breath, without allowing any distractions to break the chain of awareness.
As meditators we find out very quickly how difficult this is. As soon as we try to keep the mind fixed on respiration, we begin to worry about a pain in the legs. As soon as we try to suppress all distracting thoughts, a thousand things jump into the mind: memories, plans, hopes, fears. One of these catches our attention, and after sometime we realize we have forgotten we have forgotten completely about breathing. We begin again with renewed determination, and again after a short time we realize that the mind has slipped away without our noticing.
Who is in control here? As soon as one begins this exercise, it becomes clear quickly that in fact the mind is out of control. Like a spoiled child who reaches for one toy, becomes bored, and reaches for another, and then another, the mind keeps jumping from one thought, one object of attention to another, running away from reality.
This is the ingrained habit of the mind; this is what it has been doing all our lives. But once we start to investigate our true nature, the running away must stop. We must change the mental habit pattern and learn to remain with reality. We begin by trying to fix the attention on the breath. When we notice that it has wandered away, patiently and calmly we bring it back again. We fail and try again, and again. Smilingly, without tension, without discouragement, we keep repeating the exercise. After all, the habit of a lifetime is not changed in a few minutes. The task requires repeated, continuous practice as well as patience and calmness. This is how we develop awareness of reality.
We sit down and fix attention on the breath without any intervening thought. By doing so, we initiate and maintain the wholesome state of self-awareness. We prevent ourselves from falling into distraction, or absent-mindedness, from losing sight of reality. If a thought arises, we do not pursue it, but return our attention once again to the breath. In this way, we develop the ability of the mind to remain focused on a single object and to resist distractions - two essential qualities of concentration.
Our suffering stems from ignorance. We react because we do not know what we are doing, because we do not know the reality of ourselves. The mind spends most of the time lost in fantasies and illusions, reliving pleasant or unpleasant experiences and anticipating the future with eagerness or fear. While lost in such cravings or aversions, we are unaware of what is happening now, what we are doing now. Yet surely this moment, now, is the most important for us. We cannot live in the past; it is gone. Nor can we live in the future; it is forever beyond our grasp. We can live only in the present.
If we are unaware of our present actions, we are condemned to repeating the mistakes of the past and can never succeed in attaining our dreams for the future. But if we can develop the ability to be aware of the present moment, we can use the past as a guide for ordering our actions in the future, so that we may attain our goal.
Dhamma is the path of here-and-now. Therefore we must develop our ability to be aware of the present moment. We require a method to focus our attention on our own reality in this moment. The technique of anapana-sati is such a method. Practicing it develops awareness of oneself in the here-and-now: at this moment breathing in, at this moment breathing out. By practicing awareness of respiration, we become aware of the present moment.
Another reason for developing awareness of respiration is that focusing on breathing can help us explore whatever is unknown about ourselves, to bring into consciousness whatever has been unconscious. It acts as a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious mind, because the breath functions both consciously and unconsciously. We can decide to breathe in a particular way, to control the respiration. We can even stop breathing for a time. And yet when we cease trying to control respiration, it continues without any prompting.
For example, we may begin by breathing intentionally, slightly hard, in order to fix the attention more easily. As soon as the awareness of respiration becomes clear and steady, we allow the breath to proceed naturally, either hard or soft, deep or shallow, long or short, fast or slow. We make no effort to regulate the breath; the effort is only to be aware of it. By maintaining awareness of natural breath we have started observing the autonomic functioning of the body, an activity when is usually unconscious. From observing the gross reality of intentional breathing, we have progressed to observing the subtler reality of natural breathing. We have begun to move beyond superficial reality towards awareness of a subtler reality.
Yet another reason for developing awareness of respiration is in order to become free of attachment, aversion, and ignorance, by first becoming aware of them. In this task the breath can help, because respiration acts as a reflection of one's mental state. When the mind is peaceful and calm, the breath is regular and gentle. But whenever negativity arises in the mind, whether anger, hatred, fear, or passion, then respiration becomes more rough, heavy, and rapid. In this way, our respiration alerts us to our mental state and enables us to start to deal with it.
In practicing awareness of breathing, one finds how difficult it is to maintain unbroken awareness. Despite a firm determination to keep the attention fixed on the object of the breath, somehow it slips away unnoticed. We find we are like a drunken man trying to walk a straight line, who keeps straying to one side of the other. In fact, we are drunk with our own ignorance and illusions, and so we keep straying into past or future, craving or aversion. We cannot remain on the straight path of sustained awareness.
As meditators, we would be wise not to become depressed or discouraged when faced with these difficulties, but instead to understand that it takes time to change the ingrained mental habits of years. It can be done only by working repeatedly, continuously, patiently, and persistently. Our job is simply to return attention to our breathing as soon as we notice that it has strayed. If we can do that, we have taken an important step toward changing the wandering ways of mind. And by repeated practice, it becomes possible to bring the attention back more and more quickly. Gradually, the periods of forgetfulness become shorter and the periods of sustained awareness become longer.
-- Satya Narayan Goenka and William Hart, "Vipassana Meditation: The Art of Living"
Paying attention to the process of breath is one of the most direct ways though which we can contact the perpetual nature of subtle resilient motion. Where there is breath, there is movement. In that we breathe all the time, there is always going to be some accompanying movement even in the stillest of bodies. Furthermore, in an aligned and relaxed body this movement will not be limited to the area of the body around the organs of respiration (the chest and diaphragm), but can be experienced to extend throughout the whole body. Like a wave that moves without interference through a body of water, breath can be experienced to move through the entire length of an aligned and relaxed body.
The action of breath is initiated through the involuntary contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm. The contraction of this powerful muscle creates a bellows effect that draws air into the lungs. Its relaxation encourages the de-oxidized waste to leave the body. With every contraction, the belly expands slightly; with every relaxation, the bellow once again becomes smaller. This movement, so directly associated with the action of the diaphragm, exists in everyone (including the meditator who interprets the instruction "sit still" to try to sit with complete immobility).
Begin by simply observing the breath through bringing your awareness to sensations of feeling and movement. Do not feel that you need to change your pattern of breath in any way to make it conform to an image of proper breathing that you may have. If the pattern changes on its own, that is fine. Simply observe the breath as it is.
Again, in an aligned and relaxed body, the movement associated with breath is not confined to this one small area of the body. You will begin to notice subtle movements in the body as you breathe. Like ripples moving through a still pond into which a pebble has been dropped, the movement initiated by the involuntary action of the diaphragm can expand joint by joint through the entire body. As the diaphragm contracts, the belly and lower back expand slightly; perhaps the belly can be felt to rise and fall slightly with every breath. Perhaps there is movement in the chest but not in the belly. Observe where your body naturally moves in response to the breath, and where it holds still. In an aligned and relaxed body, the force of this expansion can then felt to move simultaneously up the torso through the top of the head and down through the pelvis and legs. The amount of actual movement may be small, but its existence is real. We become aware that we are breathing through observing the movements of the body and the sensations generated by these movements. Keep on patiently and passively watching until the pattern of your breath becomes quite clear to you.
Moving upward from the belly, the force of the belly's expansion can stimulate the chest to open. The chain reaction continues as the force from this opening is immediately transferred to the shoulders, down the arms, and into the hands, all of which can be felt to respond to the force of the breath and to move every so slightly. Finally, the neck and head can be felt to bob on top of it all. With the exhalation, the movement retraces its path. As the cycle of breath keeps continuing, the whole body can be felt to expand and contract in the manner of an amoeba.
-- Will Johnson, in "The Posture Of Meditation"
There are many good methods of concentration bequeathed to us by our predecessors in Zen. The easiest for beginners is counting incoming and outgoing breaths. The value of this particular exercise lies in that ... the discriminative mind put at rest. Thus the waves of thought are stilled and a gradual one-pointedness of mind achieved. I want you to count "one" only on the exhalation, so that one full breath, inhalation and exhalation, is "one". Don't bother counting the inhalations; just count "one", "two", "three", and so forth, on the exhalation ... up to ten. Then you return to "one" and once more count up to ten, continuing as before. If you lose the count, return to "one." It is as simple as that.
-- Hakuin Yasutani Roshi
Meditation practice for the student begins with counting the inhalations and exhalations while seated in the motionless meditation posture. This is the first step in the process of stilling the bodily functions, quieting discursive thoughts, and strengthening concentration. It is given as the first step because in counting the in and out breaths, in natural rhythm and without strain, the mind has a scaffolding to support it, as it were. When concentration on the breathing becomes such that awareness of the counting is clear and the count is not lost, the next step, a slightly more difficult type of meditation is assigned, namely, following the inhalations and exhalations of the breath, again in natural rhythm, with the awareness only.
-- Phillip Kapleau Roshi, in "The Three Pillars of Zen"
Breathing is the vehicle of spiritual experience, the mediator between body and mind. It is the first step towards the transformation of the body from the state of a more or less passively and unconsciously functioning physical organ into a vehicle or tool of a perfectly developed and enlightened mind, as demonstrated by the radiance and perfection of the Buddha's body ... The most important result of the practice of 'mindfulness with regard to breathing' is the realization that the process of breathing is the connecting link between conscious and subconscious, gross-material and fine-material, volitional and non-volitional functions, and therefore the most perfect expression of the nature of all life.
-- Lama Govinda, in "The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism"
When we practice meditation, our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say 'inner world' or 'outer world,' but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, 'I breathe,' the 'I' is extra. There is no you to say 'I.' What we call 'I' is just a swinging door which moves when we inhales and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no 'I,' no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.
-- Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, in "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind"
Here a monk, having gone into the forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty place, sits down cross-legged, holding her body erect, having established mindfulness before her. Mindfully, she breathes in, mindfully, she breathes out. Breathing in a long breath, she knows that she breathes in long breath, and breathing out a long breath, she knows that she breathes out long breath. Breathing in a short breath, she knows that she breathes in short breath, and breathing out a short breath, she knows that she breathes out short breath.
-- Siddhartha Gautama The Buddha, in "The Mahasatipatthana Sutta" (The Scripture On The Foundations Of Mindfulness)
O Monks, the method of being fully aware of breathing, if developed and practiced continuously, will have great rewards and bring great advantages ... it is like this, monks : the practitioner goes into the forest or to the foot of a tree, or to any deserted place, and sits stably in the lotus position, holding his body quite straight. Breathing in, he knows he is breathing in; and breathing out, he knows he is breathing out. Breathing in a long breath, he knows he is breathing in a long breath ... when the practitioner breathes in or breathes out a long or a short breath, aware of his breath or his whole body, or aware that he is making his whole body calm and at peace, he abides peacefully ... persevering, fully awake.
-- Siddhartha Gautama The Buddha, in "The Anapanasati Sutta" (The Scripture on the Full Awareness of Breathing)
Just as in the last month of the hot season, when a mass of dust and dirt has swirled up, a great rain cloud out of season disperses it and quells it on the spot, so too concentration by mindfulness of breathing, when developed and cultivated, is peaceful and sublime, an ambrosial dwelling, and it disperses and quells on the spot unwholesome mind states whenever they arise.
-- Siddhartha Gautama The Buddha, in "The Samyutta Nikaya V 321-22"