Breath by Breath: Why do we focus on our breathing?

Posted by Dave Mermelstein, June 23, 2016

This is from the discussion on Monday, June 20, about Concentrating on our Breath:


I’ve been thinking more than usual about concentration on the breath. We engage in it over and over, for so long. It’s simple, and yet it slips away so easily.

Soon I’ll be on retreat again, and I find myself thinking “Uh-oh. What am I getting myself into?” So many hours spent focusing on the breath. Sitting, and walking, focusing on the breath. And in the past when on retreat I’ve come too easily to think: “More breath? More just sitting here? I don’t know how I can do this much longer.” So many breaths. How can I keep concentrating on it, without being bored, without losing what it means? What does it mean?

So I started looking for things to read about focusing on the breath. And what I landed on is a book by Larry Rosenberg, of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. He teaches in the Vipassana, or Insight Meditation tradition of Thailand and Burma.

His book that I’m reading is called Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation. It’s an introduction to the Anapanasati Sutta, which turns out to be a direct teaching from the Buddha about how and why we use the breath for awakening.

Now I thought this sutta’s name was a bit similar to another sutta, and it is, so I’d like to touch on that for a second. The Satipattana Sutta is known as the Buddha’s Discourse on Mindfulness. In it he lays out the Four Foundations of Mindfullness: Mindfulness of the Body, Mindfulness of Feeling Tones, Mindfulness of the Mind, and Mindfulness of Mental Objects. These are immensely important teachings, and it’s actually been quite some time since we’ve focused on them, and we probably should again soon.

But this other sutta is not the Satipattana Sutta; it is called the Anapanasati Sutta, and it is all about focusing on the breath. My understanding is that once the Buddha’s sangha was established, and many arhats and bikkhus, or practitioners, were seriously studying and practicing what the Buddha was teaching, he chose to have them understand how important it is to focus on the breath, and what that focus can lead to.

Anapanasati is composed of three words: Ana [or “prana”], meaning the in-breath, and apana, the out-breath. And of course sati is concentration. So Anapanasati means “in-breath and out-breath concentration.” The Buddha said of it: “Mindfulness of in-&-out breathing, when developed & pursued, is of great fruit, of great benefit. Mindfulness of in-&-out breathing, when developed & pursued, brings the four frames of reference to their culmination. The four frames of reference, bring the seven factors for awakening to their culmination. The seven factors for awakening, bring clear knowing & release to their culmination.” So all of the teachings are available through the development and pursuit of concentration on our breathing. That seems very helpful to me, in the face of sometimes doubting, or losing faith in, my reasons for focusing so much on the breath.

Now the sutta itself is simple, and has that Buddhist style of repetition about it. This book, Breath By Breath, lays it out, of course, but, as do seemingly all of the very many writings about the Anapansati Sutta, it goes much further, and uses the Buddha’s simple instructions as a launching point for discussing so much more than breathing.

So while I don’t intend to give any kind of a teaching on this sutta, I do want to do two things: first, to let you all know, or remind you, of this sutta’s existence, so that you may decide to study it on your own; and second: to share with you some of the wonderful things Larry Rosenberg writes about the beauty and joy of focusing on the breath. And of course I hope we can all share our experiences with our own breath concentration; how it has helped us, methods we use, or hindrances we’ve encountered when we try to focus on the breath.

So, the Sutta itself: It is composed of four “tetrads”, or four sections of four points, totaling sixteen. Each of the four sections deals with exactly what the Buddha taught in the Satipattana Sutta. The first tetrad concerns Contemplation of the Body. The second, Contemplation of Feeling Tones. The third, Contemplation of the Mind. The fourth, Contemplation on Mental Objects. Basic to all of these contemplations is the breath, which is used in them as an anchor, a reminder, to keep the practitioner in the present moment. The whole sutta will be included at the end of this post.

Ajahn Buddhadasa taught that the breath was an ideal vehicle for teaching Buddhism in the West; it didn’t carry the cultural baggage that mantras, koans, and other methods do. He also argued that this sutra was directly related to the Satipatthana Sutra, considered in the Theravada tradition to be the core of the Buddha’s meditation teaching. The Anapanasati Sutra covers the same material in a more streamlined way, he said, and examines it with the help of conscious breathing.

Almost all of what follows are Larry Rosenberg’s words, from the book:

Much of what the sutra describes will turn up naturally if you just sit and follow the breathing, if you persist in that practice over the course of days and months and years. It is natural for your attention to deepen until it includes the whole body, and for that process gradually to calm the body. Once your attention is in the body, you begin to notice feelings and your mental reactions to them, which lead you into the mind as a vast realm to explore. Finally, if you’re paying attention, you can’t help noticing that all the phenomena you’re observing arise and pass away, that they are impermanent and lack an essential core.

Thich Nhat Hanh has introduced many beautiful gathas, or dharmic poems, which when keyed to the breath are another way to stabilize our attention. In my own teaching, I favor weaning the meditator away from any conceptual aids as soon as possible, turning to bare unmediated attention to the breath. But each person’s practice needs to unfold in its own unique manner.

We need to develop a certain devotion to our meditation object. We all start off somewhat skeptically, but if this practice is right for you, there comes a time when you simply give yourself over to it. The breath is an object that the Buddha often meditated on. It is what he used to help him achieve enlightenment. He continued to practice with it for years after his awakening. The breath, as we gradually discover, is a whole world. It is easily worth a lifetime of study.

I … generally teach the first two contemplations together. While breathing in long, one knows: “I breathe in long.” While breathing out long, one knows: “I breathe out long.” While breathing in short, one knows: “I breathe in short.” While breathing out short, one knows: “I breathe out short.” These first two contemplations move from a simple awareness of breathing to the particular qualities of the breath, a change in focus that happens quite naturally. Most commentators agree that the Buddha meant more than long and short here; he was talking about all the qualities of the breath.

As we become more familiar with breathing, we perceive subtle nuances in it. Sometimes the breath is very fine, like silk or satin; it enters and exits freely. How wonderful just to be breathing! At other times it is coarse, more like burlap; it fights its way in and out. Sometimes the breath is so deep and smooth that it affects the whole body, relaxing us profoundly. Other times it’s so short and pinched, hurried and agitated, that our minds and bodies are like that, restless and uncomfortable. It’s hard to know what comes first, whether the problem is in the breathing, the body, or the mind. Each part conditions the others. As we practice longer, we come to see that these distinctions are false anyway; these supposed parts of us are really just one thing. But the breath is an extremely sensitive psychic barometer.

One of the things you learn about this whole process—the conjunction of mind and body, with the breath as the meeting place—is that awareness has an extremely powerful effect on it. This isn’t a matter of controlling, or attempting to change, the breath. But as you pay attention, the quality of the breathing changes, perhaps because thinking is diminished. The breath becomes deeper, finer, silkier, more enjoyable, and the body starts to bear the fruits of that, to become more relaxed. This isn’t something to try for. Trying actually prevents it. It just reflects the power of mindfulness. You find yourself growing angry or worried; your heart starts to pound, your body to grow tense; but if you can just be with the breath for a while—not suppressing the emotion, but breathing with it—all that changes. The mind grows calm. As the breath goes, so goes the body. Something happens when mindfulness touches breathing. Its quality changes for the better. That is a part of what you learn from these first two contemplations, noting not just whether the breath is long or short but all the other effects it has as well. This attention to the breath has tremendous consequences.

But it is important to emphasize, in discussing the art of meditation (and the practice as you continue it becomes an art, with many subtle nuances), that you shouldn’t start out with some idea of gaining. This is the deepest paradox in all of meditation: we want to get somewhere—we wouldn’t have taken up the practice if we didn’t—but the way to get there is just to be fully here. The way to get from point A to point B is really to be at A. When we follow the breathing in the hope of becoming something better, we are compromising our connection to the present, which is all we ever have. If your breathing is shallow, your mind and body restless, let them be that way, for as long as they need to. Just watch them. The first law of Buddhism is that everything is constantly changing. No one is saying that the breathing should be some particular way all the time. If you find yourself disappointed with your meditation, there’s a good chance that some idea of gaining is present. See that, and let it go. However your practice seems to you, cherish it just the way it is. You may think that you want it to change, but that act of acceptance is in itself a major change. It has the dynamic power to take your mind into stability and serenity, which are at the core of the first four contemplations.

One place where ideas of gaining typically come in, where people get obsessive about the practice, is in the task of staying with the breathing. We take a simple instruction and create a drama of success and failure around it: we’re succeeding when we’re with the breath, failing when we’re not. Actually, the whole process is meditation: being with the breathing, drifting away, seeing that we’ve drifted away, gently coming back. It is extremely important to come back without blame, without judgment, without a feeling of failure. If you have to come back a thousand times in a five-minute period of sitting, just do it. It’s not a problem unless you make it into one. Each instance of seeing that you’ve been away is, after all, a moment of mindfulness, as well as a seed that increases the likelihood of such moments in the future. Best of all is to go beyond the whole mentality of success and failure, to understand that our lives are a series of alternations between various states. If you already had some kind of laser-like attention that never wavered, you wouldn’t need to practice meditation at all. The object of these first two contemplations isn’t to make your breathing perfect. It’s to see how your breathing really is.

The instruction is to disappear into the breathing and leave all the bones behind, all the preoccupations, worries, plans, fears, all the stuff that makes up the mind. And when we get caught up in them again, to return gently to the breath. Especially in the modern world, where everybody is so impressed with variety and complexity, so desperate to be entertained, it is a relief to settle into this simple repetitive act. The opportunity we have, of staying with the breathing, constantly coming back to it, is a chance to do one simple, ordinary thing well, to treat it with great care and respect. when we learn to surrender to one simple object, we begin to see how useful this skill is in other aspects of our lives. How many times do we brush our teeth, go to the bathroom, put on our clothes, make the bed? Our days are dominated by such ordinary and repetitive activity, which we generally handle by going on automatic pilot. That means that we miss out on much of our lives. This practice teaches us to stay fresh in the midst of all routine activity, really to live our lives.

So the constant repetition of coming back to the breath has real value. Our wish always to hit the target, always be doing it right, is an obstacle. We start to blame ourselves: I don’t know how to do this, I’m a bad meditator, everybody else is concentrating but me. If only my mind didn’t wander, I’d be able to practice. But seeing that the mind has wandered is practice. If you continue for years, you’ll have to come back, who knows, millions of times. So learning to come back gracefully is extremely important. Make it a dance, not a wrestling match.


The Anapanasati Sutta:

Mindfulness of In-&-Out Breathing


“Now how is mindfulness of in-&-out breathing developed & pursued so as to be of great fruit, of great benefit?

“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 concerns Contemplation of the Body:

[1] Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’

[2] Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’

[3]He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body. He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’

[4] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication. He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.’

The second set concerns Contemplation of Feeling Tones:

[5] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to rapture.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to rapture.’

[6] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to pleasure.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to pleasure.’

[7] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to mental fabrication. He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to mental fabrication.’

[8] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming mental fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming mental fabrication.’

The third set concerns Contemplation of the Mind:

[9] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the mind.’

[10] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in satisfying the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out satisfying the mind.’

[11] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in steadying the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out steadying the mind.’

[12] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in releasing the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out releasing the mind.’

The fourth set concerns Contemplation of Mental Objects:

[13] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on impermanence.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on impermanence.’

[14] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on dispassion [literally, fading].’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on dispassion.’

[15] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on cessation.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on cessation.’

[16] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on relinquishment.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on relinquishment.’

“This is how mindfulness of in-&-out breathing is developed & pursued so as to be of great fruit, of great benefit.”

The book referenced in tonight’s discussion (6/20/16) is

Breath By Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation, by Larry Rosenberg.




















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