Breathing meditation can seem so simple that practitioners might wonder if they are doing it right.
And maybe you aren’t.
The Buddha has described breathing meditation as “the most subtle” of meditations, “requiring the greatest subtlety of mind.”
Yet, after learning how to sit properly and with a straight spine, breathing is the first practice monks learn, and was a recommended practice for “all types of beings” by the late Namgyal Rinpoche.
Breathing meditation starts simple, which is why it is great for beginners. Namgyal Rinpoche describes the progression of breathing meditation by saying:
This meditation is enumerated as the way to develop awareness of the energy feeds. You start with the breath because it is the most crude, the most obvious energy flow. The meditation naturally unfolds from there.
Though you might start with breathing meditation, it does not mean that a teacher will recommend that you continue with it. Namgyal said:
In Burma, when one practices vipassana, one is generally directed to become aware of the breath flow by watching the rise and fall of the belly. Why? Because it is a very crude movement, very obvious, and therefore more easily used for focus. The meditation on breathing is not for everyone simply because it leads into great subtleties. That is why visualization techniques are preferred by teachers in some cases.
The Buddha did not invent breathing meditation, but it was a practice he worked with and one of the many practices he passed on to his students. What benefits did he find in breathing meditation?
Meditation master and ecology expert Tarchin Hearn said that the Sutra (text) of breathing is about using the breath in support of exploring the awareness of being.
Breathing meditation teaches us “awareness of energy flows”.
Consider: how the word “spirit” and the word “wind” have similar meanings and are at times used interchangeably in the Bible.
Breathing meditation is not just about the breath. Namgyal Rinpoche says:
There is an energy union-flow occurring constantly. Get away from limiting this exploration to air and see all the chemicals that are feeding in and out of your being to maintain balance. Be careful of simplifying too much when you are doing this practice.
Talking of breathing meditation, Namgyal challenges us to consider the flow of energy:
Even when the breath is not flowing, the energy feed of the metabolism is still occurring. You have to open the door to that level of awareness to succeed in this meditation.
He goes on to say:
When you have the feeling of one-flowing, of one-breathing rather than of “my breathing,” then you are founded in a truer sense of relativity. At that point you might try to extend this spatially.
Here is an excerpt from “Body Speech and Mind” going further into the topic:
Begin by establishing mindfulness just outside of – but not far from – the body. This is because you are neither here nor there. Because awareness is set just in front of you, you may begin to see the waves of breath/ energy before they enter the body; see the a plus the na. You know when you are successful because you will see a kind of movement which gradually expands to become the seeing of a whole energy field. You see that entering (the negation of that) and you see it flow out (the negation of this).
First you will see the entering, not what is in you. Gradually the awareness deepens so one sees not just the breathing, but the unity of life-energy breathing. There is no ego-problem, no “my state of mind” to resolve. The state of mind may well depend on whatever is in the milieu! By beginning this way, at least a sense of union precedes the practice so you are not sitting down with the thought, “What’s happening to my breath?” You are more likely to consider what is feeding the breathing. Where does it come from? You won’t take your mind-states so personally if you are aware of how it would change the state of mind to meditate in an outhouse, or in the middle of Toronto, or in a forest – but a forest that has not been sprayed with chemicals, hopefully!
Tarchin Hearn describes the breath in breathing meditation as a “lense” that is looked through. You are not looking “at” the lense, so you are not seeing it. You are seeing through it.
The Anapanasati Suta gives the first instructions for breathing meditation as thus:
Ever mindful, he breathes in, mindful, he breathes out. Thinking ‘I breathe in long,’ he understands when he is breathing in long; or thinking, ‘I breathe out long,’ he understands when he is breathing out long; or thinking, ‘I breathe in short,’ he understands when he is breathing in short; or thinking, ‘I breathe out short,’ he understands when he is breathing out short.
Do not try to alter the breath, the breath acts on its own accord. Simply recognize the quality or pattern of its long or shortness in the moment. While the Anapanasati Suta goes on to give more instructions, noticing the long and shortness of breath is the first step.
Excerpt from “Body Speech and Mind” by Namgyal Rinpoche:
The actual posture, the way of sitting, is not that important so long as the spine is held straight. Not only should you be aware of your body, you should have an awareness of your body in relation to nature, in relation to what is around you. Try to be aware of your body, of all forms, in relation to other forms.
For example, close your eyes for a moment. Now, instead of feeling your body internally, feel the boundaries of your body in relation to other bodies around you, and then in relation to the room, to the enclosed space. with your eyes open, feel relationships to form as well.
Don’t be artificial, don’t do this just for an hour each day, but in the course of your activities inculcate a feeling of where you are relative to what is around you. Feel where you are, but feel first where the universe is one-flowing.