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Part IV – Chapter 29

Breath awareness.

In meditation, we direct our attention on various means, rather than on any goals. We focus on our posture, our breathing, our mental contents, and other such current experiences, rather than on enlightenment, liberation, or similar ends. This is reasonable, since any shift of attention towards some purpose is bound to diminish or remove our concentration on present events. Once they have served to motivate us to start meditating, goals become irrelevant and can even cause interference. Once engaged, meditation should be wholly intent on means. The goals will come to fruition when their time is ripe.

Meditation is not a pursuit of “special effects” (unusual interesting experiences) – but a search for the shortest, most direct route to certain major insights. The means of meditation are characterized as techniques, to emphasize they are to be used as and when useful, and dropped as soon as they have fulfilled their function, or replaced when another instrument would seem to be more effective. We should not get attached to them: they are disposable tools justified only by their effectiveness at the time concerned.

Awareness of breath is a valuable meditation technique. Because breathing involves a natural, cyclical movement, it both draws attention (as all change does) and tends to be forgotten (as all unchanging things do). Both these features make it valuable, since we do not only want our attention drawn (by the movement) but also want an effort on our part to be called for (to maintain and concentrate awareness).

Ideally, you just quietly focus your whole attention on your breathing for a long time; your mind becomes calmer and clearer. Patiently, without interference, follow your breathing every step of its way. In practice, at first, this may not be as easy to do as it sounds. Difficulties commonly arise, for which a variety of solutions are traditionally proposed.

Adopting breathing as your object of meditation, you resolve to resume breath observation again and again, whenever some sensation or incipient thought turns your attention away. No sense blaming yourself, or arguing about the causes of such digressions. They may at first be quite frequent and prolonged; but in time, they become rarer and briefer. Just ignore them and persevere, and the meditative profit eventually comes.

In early stages, it is very difficult to capture one’s natural breath. The moment one directs one’s attention towards the breath, one’s volition seems to interfere. This may be due to the will tending to be coupled together with consciousness, so that whatever consciousness aims for is also to some extent grabbed at by the will. The will to cognize the breath is confused with a will to control the breath; that is, ‘breath awareness’ is confused with a ‘breathing exercise’.

Alternatively, the sudden shift of attention towards the breath deflects the breath. That is, the breath is momentarily interrupted by the effort of attention; and volition intervenes to artificially restore breathing, until the natural function gradually takes over again. In short, the relationship of consciousness and will is very delicate; and there is a fine line, easily crossed, between natural and forced breathing. So, one must tread gently and carefully.

In any case, continue to be mindful of your breathing, even if it is unnatural and you seem unable to get it to be natural. Tell yourself that your object of meditation does not have to be your natural breath – it could just as well be your unnatural breath. This indifference is likely to eventually defuse the underlying conflict, if you persevere long enough.

Often, too, the in and/or the out breath is/are imperceptible, and we are tempted to force breath a bit, or to invent it somewhat, so as to be able to perceive it. Avoid such temptations, and instead meditate on the apparent absence of breath[1]. Alternatively, feel (or even look at) the up or down movements of your abdomen as indices of your breath coming in or going out.

Cigarette smokers are at a great disadvantage in this meditation technique, as are people whose nose happens to be clogged by a cold or flu. For in such cases, the breath is heavy, loud and ragged, and it is very difficult to get past willed breath and find natural breath. In such circumstances, people with some yoga training physically clean out their nose using a neti pot and use to appropriate pranayama breathing exercises.

Other people may, until their handicap is cured, just abandon breath awareness and resort to some other meditation technique (like mantra recitation, for instance). However, do not give up on the breath awareness techniques too soon, because often they succeed in unblocking blocked noses. Or, if you do abandon breath awareness, return to it after a while and you may find it easier.

I get the impression that there are two breath currents taking place simultaneously: beneath the coarse, noisy current, there is a finer, less manifest current – and it is the latter breath that really gives us the air. When meditating on the breath, try to spot the more hidden, underlying air current, and preferably meditate on that. Eventually, the gross, louder breath should disappear.

Breathing can also be affected by ego interference. If you think of breathing in and breathing out as an activity of yours, as a pulling in of air and pushing out of air by you, you are too present in the equation. Rather think that the air is coming in from and going back out to the surrounds, and you are just sitting there observing events. Better still: forget yourself.

As soon as you are comfortably seated, take a couple of deep breaths. Give your mind a couple of minutes to settle down naturally, before starting breath awareness in earnest. Then slowly try to “become one with” the breathing.

Every so often, during any meditation, check your posture, as this affects breathing patterns. If your posture is incorrect, avoid making abrupt moves to correct it, but rather move very carefully so as not to affect breath rhythm. To avoid having to repeatedly correct posture, best preemptively remain attentive to keeping a good posture. Also, frequently check that your mind is clear. If you are involved in thoughts, your attention to breath is obviously diminished.

If one’s thoughts are very loud and insistent, as often happens, it is best to use a breath-counting technique for a while, before using silent breath watching. There are many scenarios; one I use is to: breathe in and out naturally, then think “one”, breathe in and out naturally, then mentally say “two”, and so forth, to “ten”, then think “first set”. Repeat this till the fifth set of ten breaths (i.e. fifty); then start again for another round of fifty breaths. After a few rounds, I usually stop counting and concentrate on the breath wordlessly.

Note that no counting is done during each breath cycle. I do the counting at the end of each in and out breath cycle, rather than (as others prefer) at the beginning. It might seem the same, but I find calling the number first tends to encourage interference of will more. However, this is not a very important detail (some teachers suggest using both ways).

The important thing is to have an attitude of patient observation towards the breath. If you get impatient, your breath tends to artificially speed up. If you disapprove of its rhythm, your breath tends to lose its rhythm.

If your emphasis of attention is on the counting, your will tends to interfere with the breathing cycle, so as to make it even and fit it into a mechanical enumeration sequence. The breath becomes rather forced and speedy, and you lose consciousness of it eventually, focusing in a routine manner on the numbers instead. You try to rush through the task of counting ten then fifty breaths, to get it over and done with and go on to the next stage. This is not the right attitude. What’s the rush? Rather, let the breath go on and on at its own pace.

Feel the air as it travels into and out of your body – through your nostrils, mouth, throat, lungs and belly. Feel every detail you can of the physical contacts between the traveling air and these channels. Feel obstacles (like a blocked nose); feel temperature differences. There are also contextual sensations and imaginations, including smells smelt[2], sounds physically heard or mentally hummed, visualizations of the breath in motion, and visual effects inside your eyelids or in your mind if your eyes are closed, the “internal clock” measurement of breathing rate, the sensation of up and down movements of the belly. Also be aware of your thoughts concerning the breath.

Notice that sudden sensations, emotions, bodily movements and thoughts all affect (and conversely, are affected by) the breath’s rate and pattern. For instance, an exciting (positive or negative) thought tends to speed and disturb the breath, whereas a calming thought slows and smoothes it.

All these factors together constitute your awareness of breath. Gradually try to become aware of them all, separately and together. But do so without artifice, just watching. Breath may be, to various degrees, natural or forced; long or short; slow or fast; light or heavy; rich or poor; smooth or ragged; regular or irregular; even on both sides, or uneven; equal in and out, or unequal; physically silent or noisy; with or without parallel mental sounds; you may feel it all the way along its route or only on part of it; it may be warm or cool, all or part of its way; smells may come with it; and so on.

Notice also the changes in these various parameters over time. Take the time to detect every detail you can (though do not worry if you cannot detect very much). But then, at some point, stop such intellectual interference. Its purpose is to increase your interest and sharpen your concentration; but taken to excess, it ends up making your mind wander. Return to mere watching your breathing, without complications or pretensions. Silently, with increasing calm and concentration.

Eventually, even give up intentionally focusing on the breath. You may continue to be aware of it, but this happens without intention. Your attention may rest partly on your breathing, and mostly on other things. You are mindful of it, yet free of it.

[1] Undetectable breath that is not necessarily a bad thing – it may indicate your breath is very fine, smooth, regular, etc. Sometimes, of course, breath is undetectable because your attention is absorbed by thoughts.

[2] Smells may come from one’s own body or the surrounds. Note that interpretation is involved: one can imagine the smell sensations one has to be from this or that source, whereas in fact they are from elsewhere.

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