Rocky Mountain Insight Rocky Mountain Insight

January, 2020

Mindfulness of Breathing


Ananda Marga Callender

Our Study of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness continues this week with the Contemplation of the Body which is the first of the four. 

We’re taking two sessions to consider Mindfulness of the Breath.  Last week, Dharma Teacher, Vic Bradford gave us a great background on why the Buddha focused on the Body and the Breath.   As he said, the Buddha often referred to all that we can learn by paying attention to this fathom long carcass. 

The mind is so busy.  It wanders wherever it wants and whenever it wants.  Right?  We pretty much give the mind free reign … and the mind is happy with that.  And it goes all kinds of places:  

Work is hard today; I wonder when I can get a vacation.  Oh look at that beautiful sunset.   The colors are so pretty.  Colorado has nice sunsets but Arizona’s sunsets are usually so spectacular.  But that’s because there’s quite a bit of pollution.  Pollution is terrible.  Tomorrow it’s supposed to snow.  I don’t like driving in the snow.  I know I am going to have an accident.  I just know it.  Oh my gosh.  I am so afraid.  Oh, I heard someone knocking on my door.  I wonder who that could be.  

On and On and On.  Our minds are untamed. 

To help tame mind from yanking us around, the first instruction is just to sit and become aware that we are breathing.  How often during any given day are we actually aware … mindful … that we are breathing?   Breathing happens, doesn’t it.  We know that.  At least we know that intellectually. 

So, we begin just by recognizing that we are breathing.  Tune in to your body right now and recognize that you are breathing.  In and Out.  Just the mere aware recognition that we are breathing can shift our experience.  Did anyone notice that?  Did you feel calmer?  More connected?

Tune in again and feel the breath as it enters and leaves your body.  Do that and just notice what occurs.   What happens with your body as you do that? 

Your body moves.  The chest rises and falls because the lungs expand and contract. We know that internally, as we breath in, the diaphragm expands downward to allow the lungs to fill.  And then the diaphragm pushes back up to help the lungs expel the air. 

I can hear some of you … come on, Marga, we know all of that.  Big deal.  Nothing new.  Yes.  We know that happens intellectually, but the gift of paying attention to this process in meditation is that we actually experience it.  And the more we experience it, the more we begin to notice all kinds of realizations we’ve missed or taken for granted.  We’ll talk about some of these as we continue.

This being aware of our breathing is the first step in calming our minds.  Some of the suttas start out by saying, “Establish mindfulness before you.” Just by tuning into our breath, we are establishing mindfulness … awareness … and this one step alone is magnificently beneficial. 

Doing this step sounds pretty simple, but it does take training and that takes time and practice along with kindness toward ourselves because our minds don’t really want to be tamed.  They are convinced that they run the show and that it’s their job to protect us and to guide us; so, they resist this calming process.  A really big part of our training in this first step is to 1. Recognize when the mind has wandered off and taken our attention with it and 2. Gently bring your attention back to each breath. 

It is so easy to fall into the trap of judgment or punishment when our minds flit off here and there …

… you can’t do this Marga, you are unable to meditate, you’re a bad meditator, look everyone else here looks so calm and quiet … They are doing it better than I am.  I might as well quit right now.  Bad Marga. 

It’s like we are dealing with a two-year-old who is into everything all at the same time.  Graciously and encouragingly inviting the mind back to attention on the breath is an important part of this step of the practice, and it may take quite a bit of time to do this.  Give yourself that time and space.  Awareness of the breath and watching the breath come and go can help us understand impermanence.  Everything, even our breath, comes and goes … arises and vanishes.

In the Four Foundation of Mindfulness Sutta, the Buddha directs us to know when our breath is short and when our breath is long and then to watch and see how our bodies respond to short breaths and long breaths.  This is what we investigate when we breath.  This is the second step. 

How might short breaths affect our bodies?  They may indicate or even create an experience of agitation or not being calm.  This might contribute to restlessness in the mind.  On the other hand, they may be helpful in raising our energy if we are tired. 

How about long breaths?  Long breaths can calm our bodies and calm our minds.  They can also help deepen concentration.  But long breaths can also lead us to dullness.  They can cause us to fall off the proverbial cliff into la-la land where we maybe aren’t really thinking thoughts, but we aren’t really aware either. 

Knowing this information can really help us manage our meditations.  When we are restless or anxious or our minds seem untamable, taking long breaths can help calm the body as well as the mind.  And when we are sleepy or our minds are just dull, shifting to short breaths for a while might pump some energy into our body and brighten our mind. 

Another way we can work with the breath and the body/mind is to find places of tension or restlessness or heaviness within our bodies.  For example, has anyone ever experienced tightness your neck and shoulders?  When we are anxious or afraid our shoulders tighten.  So the content of our mind … anxiousness or fear … creates a reaction in our bodies.  Our shoulders tighten.

In meditation, we notice that tension.  We’ve experienced that the breath can calm the body.  So, we can send the breath to that part of the body.  By breathing with that part of the body in our consciousness those muscles can begin to relax and loosen.  It’s almost like the breath is going right into those muscles and giving them a relaxing massage.  As those muscles loosen, our minds begin to relax too.  The stress in our mind decreases.  Breath, body and mind are intimately connected.  We can work with one to affect the others.

So experiment in this step of the meditation. See how long and short breaths affect you at different times and in different situations.  Find places of discomfort in your body and breathe into them and watch what happens.  Working with this step can help us recognize how our minds create dissatisfaction and suffering … dukkha … in our lives and how we can lessen that dukkha with mindful attention.

Ultimately, in this step, we do want to cultivate an alert and calm and consistent awareness.  As you become more and more aware of the effect of the breath on your body and your mind, gently use that knowledge to create this space of alert, calm, consistent awareness.  As that begins to appear, we can begin the third step. 

We can begin to broaden our awareness to include our entire body and experience the whole-body breathing. 

Again, Vic introduced us to this idea last week.  This can mean two different things and both are very valuable.  The first is to experience the breath body.  Isn’t that an interesting concept … that the breath, itself, has body.  This doesn’t mean it has physical body, but it has elements, divisions, expressions. 

Basically, it has four divisions, the in-breath, that little pause at the top of the breath, an out-breath, and the bit longer pause at the end of the breath.  Just focusing on those four elements in a meditation will calm the mind.  As we do just that, we may begin to notice other elements … the breath is ragged or harsh or soft or deep or shallow.  We also may slow down enough to notice the beginning of the inbreath, the middle of the inbreath, and the end of the inbreath … the beginning of the pause, the middle of the pause, and the end of the pause … and the same for each of the four elements. 

This is experiencing the whole body of the breath.  Again, take time to work with and experience this element of the breath. 

One of the things we recognize in our experience of breathing is that the breath breaths.  It really doesn’t take our effort at all.  The body breaths independently of our conscious effort.  We acknowledged this earlier, but for many of us it was more of an intellectual understanding.  But now, we can absolutely experience this in the here and now.  This is an important recognition and can help us begin to understand anatta … or no self.

The second way to experience the whole-body breathing is to experience the breath in the whole body.   Past the mechanical movement of the body moving because of the breath moving in and out, you may begin to experience the breath moving through your whole body and even extending out past your body.  This is an indication that your mind is becoming not just calmer, but more concentrated.  It still may go off on some tangent, but it will do so less and less frequently.  Again, spend time to develop and really experience the breath breathing in and through the whole body.

At this point, you will likely begin to experience joy, calm, and happiness in body, heart and mind arising.  This is a natural outcome of the work you’ve been doing in developing and being alert and mindful of your breath and your body. 

When our bodies and minds are contracted, there is a sense of solidity of body with rigid boundaries.  When we deeply relax into the experience meditation and the calm and happiness that naturally arises, the body and mind become lighter.  Take in this experience; relish the sense of joy and calm.  Get to know it.  Let your body and mind fully experience this naturally arising well-being and happiness.  Not only do we experience this happiness, but our whole physical demeanor changes.  Our movement and interaction in the world changes.  Meditation changes us and people notice.  

Ultimately, the reason why we Buddhists meditate … why we sit down and become aware of our breath to calm our body and mind (aka contemplating this fathom-long body)  … is to help us to understand the true nature of all things.  Through meditation, we develop mindfulness and concentration which lead to insights.  We’ve identified some of those insights already:

  • Our minds have a mind of their own and they try to run everything all the time.  They can be pretty out of control and cause us suffering.
  • We have the capability to focus and calm the mind
  • Our breath affects our body and thus our minds … it moves body parts; it can release tension and restlessness in our bodies and thus can release fear, judgments, anxiety, anger from our mind; we can use the breath to affect our experience in meditation and in life.
  • As the mind calms and becomes less active, it (and we) feels lighter and it (and we) has more clarity and stability.
  • As we follow the arising and vanishing of our breath, we begin to understand impermanence which is anicca.
  • As we work with understanding the interplay between the breath, the body and the mind, we realize that our suffering, our dukkha, often arises because of our thoughts.
  • Our body breathes.  It is not dependent on our mindful instruction to breath.
  • We are not our bodies.  We are not our emotions.  We are not our thoughts.  We become independent of these elements and do not need to cling to thoughts, emotions or our bodies as being ‘me’.  This is the insight of anatta or no self.

One word of caution.  Don’t think you have to sit down in your next meditation period and be able to move through all of these steps.  Perhaps you will be able to, especially if you have sat many meditation sessions with alert attention on your breath; but most of us need to take time and many meditation periods with each step to really enter into the experience of that step.  Allow these insights to become known in your whole system rather than just in your mind.