2021-04-09 Mindfulness of Breathing (73) Practice with Confidence
3:18PM Apr 9, 2021
So my friends, we come to the end of this series of talks on mindfulness of breathing, relying on the classic teachings of this practice given by the Buddha a long time ago. The heart of it is the sixteen steps of mindfulness of breathing.
The instructions go on, beyond those sixteen steps, to describe the process by which mindfulness of breathing leads to full awakening. I had a teacher in Japan, a Zen teacher I practiced with there, who said that all of Buddhism can be revealed through mindfulness of breathing – focusing on breathing.
In the best records we have of the meditation practice that the Buddha himself did, he explained that he did mindfulness of breathing. Sometimes, as a fully awakened being, he would go off into the forest for two to four weeks at a time to be on retreat. Before he went – or after he came back – he would explain that what he was doing was practicing mindfulness of breathing. So, it isn't only a practice to bring us to awakening, enlightenment, it's also a practice to do after enlightenment.
Enlightenment is certainly important, but maybe that's not really the point. The point is to continue practicing. Before awakening, practice. After awakening, practice. Have confidence. There are some schools of Buddhism where they say that enlightenment or awakening – whatever it might be in that school – is a confirmation of the practice. Now we really know, "'This' is what the practice is. The practice is good. It works." There's a very clear confidence in the practice itself.
Certainly Buddhist practice can be more than mindfulness of breathing. But to have confidence in the practice you do. That is one of the signs of maturing and developing this meditation practice. Rather than measuring success by states of meditation, concentration, calm, or insight – whatever it might be, and I don't want to dismiss the value of those states – but more important is to have unshakable confidence that this practice is worth doing. Really trust it.
One of the great gifts that mindfulness practice has given me is that I have a real trust in just being mindful, in the practice of mindfulness, and in the practice of showing up and being aware of what's happening now. There are certainly plenty of times that I run into difficult situations – situations where I don't quite know how to find my way through and understand what's happening. But I trust, even in those situations, being mindful.
There's a sense of direction, purpose, grounding – an orientation and a sense of safety. I don't get swept up in the drama of the moment or the concerns and anxieties of the situation, because I have a deep trust that things will work out when there is strong mindfulness. Just come back to it and practice.
Now, that doesn't mean only being mindful, but mindfulness reveals the way forward sooner or later. I don't seem to go wrong by pausing, stopping to look and be present, and seeing what's really going on here – seeing what's happening in me and what's happening outside. And I don't go wrong by coming back and just breathing.
Some of you have done yoga classes in which the common instruction from the yoga teacher (or their observation) is: "You know, you're holding your breath. Don't hold your breath." Somehow, in the straining of doing a posture, some people hold their breath. Yoga teachers like you to keep a relaxed, loose, breath as you go. And that's really good advice for all of life.
One of the possibilities of practicing mindfulness of breathing is that it becomes second nature to be aware of your breathing, of how you're breathing, and of where the breathing is constricted or held. Coming back to a relaxed breath, fluid breathing, an easeful breath, makes a huge difference because it reorients or resets the psychology – the emotionality – of the mind itself.
When breathing is relaxed, it's harder to cling, grasp, or contract around things. It's a little bit of protection, I think. I think of it as a lubricant of the mind, a lubricant of the heart. It keeps the mind fluid, moving, and not rusted.
There is a wonderful rhythm of breathing in and out. That rhythm is a protection from getting caught up, fixated on our preoccupations, concerns, or fears. If we're not fixated, we often get a more realistic understanding – a bigger, better view of what's going on – than if we get caught up in the middle of our preoccupations.
So, mindfulness of breathing is always useful, I think. There are some people who don't find it particularly to be their favorite or most effective practice, and there are other wonderful practices to do. But for these weeks that we've been doing mindfulness of breathing, I want to emphasize that it is a wonderful practice for many, many people. As we sink into it, develop it, and grow in it, one of the primary qualities – eventually – is a real confidence in it, a real confidence in practice. We just do it day in and day out.
I believe, in my reading of the classic instruction of the sixteen steps, that most of those steps have the expression: "I will breathe in; I will train. Training, I will breathe out." In the midst of everything – whatever's going on in the sixteen steps – "I train to breathe in. I train to breathe out."
There is intentionality, dedication and – I'd like to say – love of just breathing in the middle of it, no matter what. Nothing is worth getting so caught up in that we can't just stay floating on the river of breathing, that we can't stay with the lubrication, the ease, and with the relaxation that mindfulness of breathing can provide. It makes life so much easier.
In Buddhist terminology, it helps us to have a life that is freer, more liberated, easeful, open – and available for wisdom, to see more clearly what is here. We have an amazing capacity for wisdom, insight, and seeing that can come in the wake of relaxed, open, settled experience with breathing – breathing in, and breathing out.
So, I think this is the seventy-third session we've had on mindfulness of breathing. We've done it since the beginning of the year. It's quite a journey. I hope this has been meaningful and supportive for you, and that it's opened up or pointed out to you some of the value and richness that can come with mindfulness of breathing.
Some of the sixteen steps, or the topics of the steps, are relevant for other forms of meditation practice as well. I hope it has given you new perspectives on yourself, and maybe even pointed to dimensions of your inner life that you hadn't really thought about, focused on, or seen before. Maybe it has supported and developed you.
Thank you for letting me share all these months about mindfulness of breathing. It is, I would say, my primary practice for meditation and for going around in daily life. I've been doing mindfulness of breathing since I was twenty years old – for decades. I find it still, to this day, a fantastic, wonderful practice. It's not the only practice I do. Because mindfulness includes everything, part of the beauty of mindfulness is to be all-inclusive. But breathing is at the center of it all, and it is a wonderful center.
So thank you. We'll continue on Monday with a new topic. I haven't decided quite what I'm going to do. We'll do some topic next week that will feel a bit like a followup from this whole series. I hope you have a wonderful weekend. Thank you for the opportunity to give this series.