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Wise Ways to Watch the Breath

- based on a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Brahm

It's not easy to watch the breath, because it is so subtle. So the following suggestions, by Ajahn Brahm, on how to stay with the breath, are most welcome.

Staying with the breath i.e. meditation results in samadhi/stillness, the last factor of the Noble Eight Fold Path. The first seven factors of the Path provide the support for the eighth factor.

Some of the seven factors are brought into use during meditation. Others are established prior to meditating. This is explained in detail in the Article on "The Gradual Training". In summary, before meditating, we want to practice Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. During meditation, we'll use the other four factors: Right View, Right Intention, Right Effort and Right Mindfulness.

We use these supports to let go of the hindrances.....so named because they hinder our meditation from bringing us to stillness. And we want stillness as it allows insight to arise which allows us to realize enlightenment.

One of the hindrances, dullness (sloth and torpor), Ajahn Brahm is not concerned about. He says to just carry on. It's not a problem. It disappears on its own if we don't struggle against it. It's the other hindrances that are the big hurdle. Desire disturbs the mind along with aversion and restlessness and doubt.

Ways to stay with the breath:

1. None of my business

Whatever hindrance arises to distract us from the breath, is due to causes and conditions. We don't own it. We don't have control over when or what arises. Understanding this is part of Right View. Since we didn't ask it to arise, it's none of our business. We can use this as a mantra. Our response to a hindrance arising can be, "It's none of my business" and immediately return our attention to the breath. Gently returning attention to the breath is Right Effort and also Right Mindfulness (being mindful of something that leads to stillness.) Wrong mindfulness would be focusing on the hindrance which leads to suffering and prevents stillness.

2. Wise Reflection

Wisely reflect on what arises: Is it helpful? Is it leading to peace? Is it causing suffering? Is it hindering my meditation? Is it accurate/true? Where has thinking gotten me? Reflecting may help us lose interest in the arisen distractions so we can return easily to the breath. If we can develop nibbida (lack of interest, distaste) towards what has arisen, our do-er, which is our will, fades away (because we are not fuelling what has arisen). And the five senses fade away, the body fades away and we become aware of stillness. This is letting go/renunciation, part of Right Intention.

Thich Nhat Hanh has a mantra that can be used to help us wisely reflect on some of our thoughts: "Am I sure?" This is good to use when worry arises.

It's a delusion to think that we'll be safe if we spend our time planning the future. Remember the comfort of the present moment which is our only home....we live in the now, not the past or future.

Thoughts are useful at times in our life, but during meditation they are a waste of time. Thinking distracts us from mindfulness, which will then never get strong enough to develop the beautiful breath. The beautiful breath happens all by itself when we are mindful. The beautiful breath is just that....it feels beautiful, effortless and strongly attracts our attention.

3. Persistence

When we sit down to meditate, its helpful to start by making an aspiration to stay with the breath. Each time our mind wanders, we bring it gently back to the breath. Notice, " Am I in the present moment with the breath?" If not, return to the breath. Be persistent. This is Right Effort. It is done gently, without strain, with loving friendliness towards ourselves and whatever has arisen. Loving friendliness is another aspect of Right Intention.

We can decrease the amount of mind wandering by attending very precisely to each moment, noticing every tiny detail of the breath....but only if this is done without strain. Our interest can be aroused when we attend to details. The breath can become more interesting and then we want to attend closely to it. I like to focus on the beautiful feeling of the in and out breath. The enjoyment keeps my attention. This leaves no space for thinking.

Persistence is important. The Buddha stated that patient endurance (persistence, Right Effort) is the summit of the holy life. It's the most important practice for us to keep on going, no matter what the obstacle. When a tiger is put in a cage it screams and roars...that's its nature. But with time it calms down. So when we start to train our minds, we can expect resistance. The sense of self may assert itself, complaining "I don't want to do this!" It's important for us to not believe our thoughts or give them value. eg. I"m too tired", "This will never work", "It's too noisy, hot, cold etc". We stay on the cushion. We return repeatedly to the breath. We remain wise. We don't get sucked into those thoughts. Instead, we stay in the moment. If the present moment is unpleasant, we just know that....we just persist.

If our attention is fully in the moment, no room for thinking, there isn't any craving or aversion. Being in the moment cuts away 99% of the problems of meditation. So, this tool of returning repeatedly to the breath is so important. Once we have cut off the wriggling, squirming mind that wants to run off to the past or the future...anywhere but here, we start to build up mental energy which leads to increased mindfulness which makes the breath look more beautiful. The breath becomes beautiful all by itself. This is how we beautify the breath....just with stillness.

4. Valuing the Breath

Value the breath as a mother values her child. A mother with her baby in a shopping mall wouldn't forget her baby on a counter. She values the baby too much. She keeps constant attention on her baby. In the same way, we need to value our breath....so we naturally keep our attention on it. If our mind wanders, then it means we value what we wandered to more than we value our breath. Having faith in peace, stillness and letting go helps us value the breath.

5. Peace

Pay attention to how we are watching our breath....what's between the observer and the observed? What we put in between creates a positive or negative or neutral experience. We can put peace in between any object of our attention (eg tiredness, anger, restlessness) and ourself. This is a great technique to get deep meditation. Watch with peace. It's a way of enduring that restless mind. We can remind ourselves that this is good enough. Don't let ourselves be dragged around by our will, which is like a prison guard. We need to stand back and look objectively, without any personal involvement, at our fantasies and distractions that arise when we're trying to watch the breath. We can just note their presence and put peace between them and ourselves.

We can do this with pain too....when we have done all we can to relieve the pain, but it still persists, we watch it with peace. In this way the mental part of our suffering is completely abandoned. Putting peace between ourselves and our meditation object is making good kamma. Whatever we are experiencing at the moment is due to old kamma. We can't do anything about it. But we can do something about how we respond to that old kamma. How we watch the present moment is the new kamma we are making. We need to make good, skillful kamma to get to deep meditation. Watch negativity, anger, tiredness or whatever else has arisen with peace and contentment. This is letting it be. Don't join it...."Oh, I can't stand this. This is terrible etc."

6. Contentment

This is another word for peace. Our mind wanders because we aren't content with the breath. Build up contentment by saying" this breath is good enough"..."it's ok for me". Whenever we feel contentment, we linger there. Due to discontent, we move our attention elsewhere. Don't use willpower to stay with the breath. Be content with little...with whatever arises. It's there. It's now reality. We can't change the fact that it has arisen. But we can choose the response to it. Choose peace and contentment!

Once we've created peace it's very easy to stay with the breath. Peace and contentment are enemies of restlessness. Once we make peace, are content, we are on the Path.

7. Metta

The door of my heart is open to you (i.e. whatever is arising). Put metta between ourselves and the object of our mindfulness. Metta is naturally joyous. It's very powerful to combine metta with breath meditation. This is how Bhante Gunaratana teaches it....see the lesson on metta, page 4.

Putting peace, kindness, contentment, metta between ourselves and the meditation object means we are practicing the second step of the Eight Fold Path: right intention: metta - loving friendliness, karuna - compassion, nekkhamma - letting go, renunciation.

Putting ill will, aversion, anger, worry etc between ourself and what we are experiencing just leads to suffering.

Putting peace, kindness, contentment, metta between is using wisdom power. If we try to use willpower to glue our mindfulness to the breath, joy won't arise and the meditation will not deepen.

8. Give unconditionally

If we give our mind completely to this moment (my mind is all yours), with no expectations of receiving anything in return, this leads to peace, contentment, stillness. The self has to disappear for real giving to occur. When we really give all to the present moment, there has to be stillness as there is nothing left to cause any movement/agitation. Give up....surrender to the breath or whatever is in front of us. Giving ourselves completely to the breath leads to one pointedness and stability. Once we are stable long enough (without controlling), the breath turns by its own nature into the beautiful breath.

When the do-er disappears, that's what stillness is. When the do-er is gone, there's nothing to move the mind, so the mind becomes still. There are no orders, no complaining.

With stillness, energy power comes. The more still we are the more mindful we become. Power starts to flow into the mind. Whatever we see, hear, feel, taste becomes more rich, more subtle. We are awakening. The eyes of the mind are becoming wide open. As we awaken the Eight Fold Path becomes very clear. And this stronger mindfulness enhances deeper meditations. And joy comes with mindfulness. The breath becomes more beautiful, interesting....we can't take our attention off of it. We just delight in the beautiful breath. The mind becomes more still, until the breath disappears. Now we are on the path of jhanas and awakening. Looking back, after a meditation sitting, we can see the path we took to get here.....so we can repeat the steps the next time we meditate.

We no longer need a teacher's support once we've reached the beautiful breath. The beautiful breath is the pivotal point. There is minimal effort required to hold the attention on the beautiful breath and it leads to more energy, more stillness, more insight and jhanas. The hard part is getting to the beautiful breath and staying there long enough for the meditation path to unfold. It's hard to do because of ingrained habit energy. But it is worth doing!

The Buddha's teachings are about how to end suffering. To do this, he gave us the Noble Eight Fold Path. In this article, we are shown how to use this Path to come to stillness and peace.

Summary of techniques:

1. Whatever arises is due to a cause. Use the mantra, "None of my business". Return to the breath.

2. Wisely reflect on what arises....is it helpful? Is it leading to peace? Is it causing suffering? Hindering my meditation? "Am I sure?" The reflection may help you lose interest in the distractions so you can return easily to the breath.

3. Be persistent. Every time the mind wanders, gently return it to the breath.

4. Value the breath as a mother her child.

5. Put peace between ourself and whatever has arisen.

6. Be content with whatever has arisen. "This is good enough".

7. Send metta to what has arisen. "The door of my heart is open to you".

8. Give ourselves totally and unconditionally to the breath, expecting nothing in return.

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