From:  “Mindfulness in Plain English”
By: Gunaratana Mahathera







The meditation we teach is called Insight Meditation.  As we have already





said, the variety of possible objects of meditation is nearly unlimited, and





human beings have used an enormous number down through the ages.  Even





within the Vipassana tradition there are variances.  There are meditation





teachers who teach their students to follow the breath by watching the rise





and fall of the abdomen.  Others recommend focusing attention on the touch





of the body against the cushion, or hand against hand, or the feeling of one





leg against the other.  The method we are explaining here, however, is





considered the most traditional and is probably what Gotama Buddha taught





his students.  The Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha's original discourse on





mindfulness, specifically says that one must begin by focusing the attention





on the breathing and then go on to note all other physical and mental





phenomena which arise. 






We sit, watching the air going in and out of our noses.  At first glance,





this seems an exceedingly odd and useless procedure.  Before going on to





specific instructions, let us examine the reason behind it.  The first





question we might address is why use any focus of attention at all? We are,





after all, trying to develop awareness.  Why not just sit down and be aware





of whatever happens to be present in the mind?  In fact there are





meditations of that nature.  They are sometimes referred to as unstructured





meditation and they are quite difficult.  The mind is tricky.  Thought is an





inherently complicated procedure.  By that we mean we become trapped,





wrapped up, and stuck in the thought chain.  One thought leads to another





which leads to another, and another, and another, and so on.  Fifteen





minutes later we suddenly wake up and realize we spent that whole time stuck





in a daydream or sexual fantasy or a set of worries about our bills or











There is a difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a





thought.  That difference is very subtle.  It is primarily a matter of





feeling or texture.  A thought you are simply aware of with bare attention





feels light in texture; there is a sense of distance between that thought





and the awareness viewing it.  It arises lightly like a bubble, and it





passes away without necessarily giving rise to the next thought in that





chain.  Normal conscious thought is much heavier in texture.  It is





ponderous, commanding, and compulsive.  It sucks you in and grabs control of





consciousness.  By its very nature it is obsessional, and it leads straight





to the next thought in the chain, apparently with no gap between them. 






Conscious thought sets up a corresponding tension in the body, such as





muscular contraction or a quickening of the heartbeat.  But you won't feel





tension until it grows to actual pain, because normal conscious thought is





also greedy.  It grabs all your attention and leaves none to notice its own





effect.  The difference between being aware of the thought and thinking the





thought is very real.  But it is extremely subtle and difficult to see.





Concentration is one of the tools needed to be able to see this difference.







Deep concentration has the effect of slowing down the thought process and





speeding up the awareness viewing it.  The result is the enhanced ability to





examine the thought process.  Concentration is our microscope for viewing





subtle internal states.  We use the focus of attention to achieve





one-pointedness of mind with calm and constantly applied attention.  Without





a fixed reference point you get lost, overcome by the ceaseless waves of





change flowing round and round within the mind. 






We use breath as our focus.  It serves as that vital reference point from






which the mind wanders and is drawn back.  Distraction cannot be seen as




distraction unless there is some central focus to be distracted from.  That




is the frame of reference against which we can view the incessant changes




and interruptions that go on all the time as a part of normal thinking. 





Ancient Pali texts liken meditation to the process of taming a wild




elephant.  The procedure in those days was to tie a newly captured animal to




a post with a good strong rope.  When you do this the elephant is not happy.




He screams and tramples, and pulls against the rope for days.  Finally it




sinks through his skull that he can't get away, and he settles down.  At




this point you can begin to feed him and to handle him with some measure of




safety.  Eventually you can dispense with the rope and post altogether, and




train your elephant for various tasks.  Now you've got a tamed elephant that




can be put to useful work.  In this analogy the wild elephant is your wildly




active mind, the rope is mindfulness, and the post is our object of




meditation -- breathing.  The tamed elephant who emerges from this process



is a well trained, concentrated mind that can then be used for the



exceedingly tough job of piercing the layers of illusion that obscure



reality.  Meditation tames the mind. 




The next question we need to address is: Why choose breathing as the primary



object of meditation? Why not something a bit more interesting?  Answers to



this are numerous.  A useful object of meditation should be one that



promotes mindfulness.  It should be portable, easily available and cheap.



It should also be something that will not embroil us in those states of mind



from which we are trying to free ourselves, such as greed, anger and



delusion.  Breathing satisfies all these criteria and more.  Breathing is



something common to every human being.  We all carry it with us wherever we



go.  It is always there, constantly available, never ceasing from birth till



death, and it costs nothing. 




Breathing is a non-conceptual process, a thing that can be experienced


directly without a need for thought.  Furthermore, it is a very living


process, an aspect of life that is in constant change.  The breath moves in


cycles -- inhalation, exhalation, breathing in and breathing out.  Thus it


is miniature model of life itself. 



The sensation of breath is subtle, yet it is quite distinct when you learn

to tune into it.  It takes a bit of an effort to find it.  Yet anybody can

do it.  You've got to work at it, but not too hard.  For all these reasons,

breathing makes an ideal object of meditation.  Breathing is normally an

involuntary process, proceeding at its own pace without a conscious will.

Yet a single act of will can slow it down or speed it up, make it long and

smooth or short and choppy.  The balance between involuntary breathing and

forced manipulation of breath is quite delicate.  And there are lessons to

be learned here on the nature of will and desire.  Then, too, that point at

the tip of the nostril can be viewed as a sort of a window between the inner

and outer worlds.  It is a nexus point and energy-transfer spot where stuff

from the outside world moves in and becomes a part of what we call 'me', and

where a part of me flows forth to merge with the outside world.  There are

lessons to be learned here about self-concept and how we form it. 


Breath is a phenomenon common to all living things.  A true experiential

understanding of the process moves you closer to other living beings.  It

shows you your inherent connectedness with all of life.  Finally, breathing

is a present-time process.  By that we mean it is always occurring in the

here-and-now.  We don't 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.  We are pulled out of the morass of mental images and

into a bare experience of the here- and-now.  In this sense, breath is a

living slice of reality.  A mindful observation of such a miniature model of

life itself leads to insights that are broadly applicable to the rest of our



The first step in using the breath as an object of meditation is to find it.

What you are looking for is the physical, tactile sensation of the air that

passes in and out of the nostrils.  This is usually just inside the tip of

the nose.  But the exact spot varies from one person to another, depending

on the shape of the nose.  To find your own point, take a quick deep breath

and notice the point just inside the nose or on the upper lip where you have

the most distinct sensation of passing air.  Now exhale and notice the

sensation at the same point.  It is from this point that you will follow the

whole passage of breath.  Once you have located your own breath point with

clarity, don't deviate from that spot.  Use this single point in order to

keep your attention fixed.  Without having selected such a point, you will

find yourself moving in and out of the nose, going up and down the windpipe,

eternally chasing after the breath which you can never catch because it

keeps changing, moving and flowing. 


If you ever sawed wood you already know the trick.  As a carpenter, you

don't stand there watching the saw blade going up and down.  You will get

dizzy.  You fix your attention on the spot where the teeth of the blade dig

into the wood.  It is the only way you can saw a straight line.  As a

meditator, you focus your attention on that single spot of sensation inside

the nose.  From this vantage point, you watch the entire movement of breath

with clear and collected attention.  Make no attempt to control the breath.

This is not a breathing exercise of the sort done in Yoga.  Focus on the

natural and spontaneous movement of the breath.  Don't try to regulate it or

emphasize it in any way.  Most beginners have some trouble in this area.  In

order to help themselves focus on the sensation, they unconsciously

accentuate their breathing.  The results is a forced and unnatural effort

that actually inhibits concentration rather than helping it.  Don't increase

the depth of your breath or its sound.  This latter point is especially

important in group meditation.  Loud breathing can be a real annoyance to

those around you.  Just let the breath move naturally, as if you were

asleep.  Let go and allow the process to go along at its own rhythm. 


This sounds easy, but it is trickier than you think.  Do not be discouraged

if you find your own will getting in the way.  Just use that as an

opportunity to observe the nature of conscious intention.  Watch the

delicate interrelation between the breath, the impulse to control the breath

and the impulse to cease controlling the breath.  You may find it

frustrating for a while, but it is highly profitable as a learning

experience, and it is a passing phase.  Eventually, the breathing process

will move along under its own steam.  And you will feel no impulse to

manipulate it.  At this point you will have learned a major lesson about

your own compulsive need to control the universe. 


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.  Don't 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's next?" No, that is not

Vipassana.  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 it does not happen anymore. 


When you first begin this procedure, expect to face some difficulties.  Your

mind will wander off constantly, darting around like a drunken bumblebee and

zooming off on wild tangents.  Try not to worry.  The monkey-minded

phenomenon is well known.  It is something that every advanced meditator has

had to deal with.  They have pushed through it one way or another, and so

can you.  When it happens, just note the fact that you have been thinking,

day-dreaming, worrying, or whatever.  Gently, but firmly, without getting

upset or judging yourself for straying, simply return to the simple physical

sensation of the breath.  Then do it again the next time, and again, and

again, and again. 


Somewhere in this process, you will come face-to-face with the sudden and

shocking realization that you are completely crazy.  Your mind is a

shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill,

utterly out of control and hopeless.  No problem.  You are not crazier than

you were yesterday.  It has always been this way, and you just never

noticed.  You are also no crazier than everybody else around you.  The only

real difference is that you have confronted the situation; they have not.

So they still feel relatively comfortable.  That does not mean that they are

better off.  Ignorance may be bliss, but it does not lead to liberation.  So

don't let this realization unsettle you.  It is a milestone actually, a sigh

of real progress.  The very fact that you have looked at the problem

straight in the eye means that you are on your way up and out of it. 


In the wordless observation of the breath, there are two states to be

avoided: thinking and sinking.  The thinking mind manifests most clearly as

the monkey-mind phenomenon we have just been discussing.  The sinking mind

is almost the reverse.  As a general term, sinking mind denotes any dimming

of awareness.  At its best, it is sort of a mental vacuum in which there is

no thought, no observation of the breath, no awareness of anything.  It is a

gap, a formless mental gray area rather like a dreamless sleep.  Sinking

mind is a void.  Avoid it. 


Vipassana meditation is an active function.  Concentration is a strong,

energetic attention to one single item.  Awareness is a bright clean

alertness.  Samahdhi and Sati -- these are the two faculties we wish to

cultivate.  And sinking mind contains neither.  At its worst, it will put

you to sleep.  Even at its best it will simply waste your time. 


When you find you have fallen into a state of sinking mind, just note the

fact and return your attention to the sensation of breathing.  Observe the

tactile sensation of the in-breath.  Feel the touch sensation of the

out-breath.  Breathe in, breathe out and watch what happens.  When you have

been doing that for some time -- perhaps weeks or months -- you will begin

to sense the touch as a physical object.  Simply continue the process --

breathe in and breathe out.  Watch what happens.  As your concentration

deepens you will have less and less trouble with monkey-mind.  Your

breathing will slow down and you will track it more and more clearly, with

fewer and fewer interruptions.  You begin to experience a state of great

calm in which you enjoy complete freedom from those things we call psychic

irritants.  No greed, lust, envy, jealousy or hatred.  Agitation goes away.

Fear flees.  These are beautiful, clear, blissful states of mind.  They are

temporary, and they will end when meditation ends.  Yet even these brief

experiences will change your life.  This is not liberation, but these are

stepping stones on the path that leads in that direction.  Do not, however,

expect instant bliss.  Even these stepping stones take time and effort and



The meditation experience is not a competition.  There is a definite goal.

But there is no timetable.  What you are doing is digging your way deeper

and deeper through the layers of illusion toward realization of the supreme

truth of existence.  The process itself is fascinating and fulfilling.  It

can be enjoyed for its own sake.  There is no need to rush. 


At the end of a well-done meditation session you will feel a delightful

freshness of mind.  It is peaceful, buoyant, and joyous energy which you can

then apply to the problems of daily living.  This in itself is reward

enough.  The purpose of meditation is not to deal with problems, however,

and problem-solving ability is a fringe benefit and should be regarded as

such.  If you place too much emphasis on the problem-solving aspect, you

will find your attention turning to those problems during the session,

sidetracking concentration.  Don't think about your problems during your

practice.  Push them aside very gently. 


Take a break from all that worrying and planning.  Let your meditation be a

complete vacation.  Trust yourself, trust your own ability to deal with

these issues later, using the energy and freshness of mind that you built up

during your meditation.  Trust yourself this way and it will actually occur.



Don't set goals for yourself that are too high to reach.  Be gently with

yourself.  You are trying to follow your own breathing continuously and

without a break.  That sounds easy enough, so you will have a tendency at

the outset to push yourself to be scrupulous and exacting.  This is

unrealistic.  Take time in small units instead.  At the beginning of an

inhalation, make the resolve to follow the breath just for the period of

that one inhalation.  Even this is not so easy, but at least it can be done.

Then, at the start of the exhalation, resolve to follow the breath just for

that one exhalation, all the way through.  You will still fail repeatedly,

but keep at it. 


Every time you stumble, start over.  Take it one breath at a time.  This is

the level of the game where you can actually win.  Stick at it -- fresh

resolve with every breath cycle, tiny units of time.  Observe each breath

with care and precision, taking it one split second on top of another, with

fresh resolve piled one on top of the other.  In this way, continuous and

unbroken awareness will eventually result. 


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 don't

look back and you don't look forward.  You forget about the last breath, and

you don't anticipate the next one.  When the inhalation is just beginning,

you don't look ahead to the end of that inhalation.  You don't 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's what you pay

attention to; that and nothing else. 


This meditation is a process of retraining the mind.  The state you are

aiming for is one in which you are totally aware of everything that is

happening in your own perceptual universe, exactly the way it happens,

exactly when it is happening; total, unbroken awareness in the present time.

This is an incredibly high goal, and not to be reached all at once.  It

takes practice, so we start small.  We start by becoming totally aware of

one small unit of time, just one single inhalation.  And, when you succeed,

you are on your way to a whole new experience of life.