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.