2022-01-07 Satipaṭṭhāna (5) Sensing the Whole Breath
3:56PM Jan 7, 2022
The practice of mindfulness or sati – establishing and developing awareness – begins with breathing. We know that breathing as a meditation object doesn't work for everyone, so there are other ways of practicing mindfulness. Some people will establish awareness not so much with breathing, but with the body more generally. They may ignore the place in the body where breathing occurs, because it's somehow compromised. It is a difficult place for some people.
But it is also a classic and primary focus in Buddhist meditation. A teacher in Japan told me that everything you need to learn about Buddhism can be discovered through mindfulness of breathing. I'd prefer to reword it and say that everything you need to know about Buddhism will be revealed through practicing mindfulness of breathing. But it is actually true that for any engaged mindfulness practice, whatever the object is – whatever the way of practicing is – mindfulness has the capacity to reveal everything we need to know for the purpose of freedom.
Right now we are doing mindfulness of breathing. The emphasis now is to experience it in the body. The word in Pali is paṭisaṃvedeti. It means "to experience," "to feel," in a reflexive or subjective way – in your own deep subjective feeling of what is going on. But not "feeling" in the English meaning, which is sometimes more that "how I feel" really means "what I want," or what I'm thinking about this, or my attitude about something.
Here we are talking about something simpler. What we are feeling is the sensory experience we are having, independent of our preferences. We are learning to be close to that and simple with that.We are using sensory experience as a way of cultivating some degree of concentration and stability. This also serves the purpose of protecting us from wandering off too easily into distracted thoughts.
To have a place where the attention gets established and rooted: "this" is where we are going to be. Of course, the mind wanders away. Then, rather than being upset with that, we take it for granted the mind "will" wander away. But what we are developing and practicing here is a rhythm. Just like there is a rhythm of breathing in and breathing out, there is a rhythm of coming into the present moment with breathing, and then wandering away, and then coming back, wandering away, and coming back.
You are not really in charge of the wandering away. But your role is coming back. And if you think of it as a rhythm – as a flow – then maybe you will do it more harmoniously, rather than jerking the mind back, or rather than taking time out to be upset with the fact that you were distracted.
Just: "There it is – and you get into the sense of the rhythm. Okay." You are not going to participate with the mind being distracted, if you have a choice. But what you are doing is bringing it back to the breathing. Then you are staying close to the sensations of breathing, which are the meeting place of the mind and the body.
We want to have the mind and body working in harmony and working together. That is part of the unification practice of meditation – that gathering together – so all of us, all of who we are, begins operating in harmony, rather than working at cross-purposes. If the idea is to be in the present moment in our direct experience, and the mind keeps wanting to think about something else, then we are kind of at cross-purposes with ourselves. In this exercise we are doing now around breathing, the task is to come back to breathing.
Down through the centuries, a very common practice has been to offer a little dedication or commitment to staying with the simplicity of breathing, so there is some strength there that, with time, overrides the tendency to wander off in thought. The rhythm begins to slow down, and you are going to wander off less often. You are going to stay more with the breathing. Also, you are going to come back more quickly to the breathing. Slowly the practice changes, and you get more and more here. So offering some strength, some commitment – that "this is what I am doing"– is a way of not offering a lot of energy or fuel to our thinking mind.
It is a slow process. Slowly, slowly, we begin to switch the orientation. We switch the commitment of the mind from being committed to our issues in our life, to being committed – in terms of meditation practice – to just being here with the simplicity of breathing.
It can be hard sometimes for the mind to appreciate that this is valuable, that we are safe, and we are going to make our life better just by staying simply with the breathing – when we have important things to think about.
But in fact, this is one of the great ways of making ourself safe. Because we are learning how to drop into a quieter, deeper place within that is a source of wisdom, a source of better understanding. A source of a shift of identity – a shift in how we understand ourselves – that is sometimes a much better, wiser place than the identity that supports distracted thinking. This training is to come in for a landing with your breathing: just being with the body as it breathes.
Then the instructions, at this point in the text, say: "Breathing in, one experiences the whole body. Breathing out, one experiences the whole body." There are two meanings of "experiencing the whole body." One is: experiencing the whole breath-body – the whole duration of the breathing. The other is that you are actually experiencing the whole body, beyond just the experience of breathing. For now I would like to emphasize the first – that as we are cultivating continuity with the breathing, it is possible to have continuity within the inhale.
There was a time in my life where I did the checklist approach to mindfulness. I knew I had to be mindful of the inbreath, and so I would note it as "in." And as soon as the mind had recognized that this was an inbreath, then it was vacation time and my mind would wander off – because I did my job. I just checked it off, "In." And then the outbreath "Out." What I learned was that, rather than just checking it off and being done with it, the practice was to stay present for the whole duration.
Many years ago, I took a massage class in college. The instruction was, as you are massaging someone, always keep a hand on their body, so there is always a continuity of contact. That way they are not surprised if you take your hands away to get more oil or something and then put them back. There can be a little surprise when you have lost contact.
The same way with the breathing. Stay in touch with the full duration of the inbreath – the beginning, the middle, and the end. As you get more intimate with the experience, you will feel a kaleidoscope of sensations. As you breathe in, maybe there is the beginning of the chest lifting, or of the belly expanding, or the beginning of tingling in your nostrils. Then what happens to those sensations? How do they morph and change just in the course of the inhale? Then, the same thing with exhale – stay in touch.
Sometimes you sit down to meditate and the breathing is short and quick. So just ride it, like bronco riding in a rodeo: ride the shortness of it, coming and going. Maybe relax the best you can on the exhale. But as meditation gets calmer, the breathing tends to get slower and longer. That is when you start feeling, sensing, and savoring: having an intimacy with all the physical sensations that come into play as you breathe.
It helps if you are not measuring everything through the perspective of your preferences – whether it's comfortable or not comfortable, whether you like it or don't like it, or whether you think it's good or it's bad. That belongs to the control tower. It belongs to a way of separating ourselves from our experience.
If you get bored with the breathing, that is also a separation from the experience. You probably will not be bored unless you have kind of pulled away from the experience of breathing. The idea is to come into it, and be really close and intimate with the experience. Feel the whole inhale, and the whole exhale. If you get into that, then also, with the same kind of delicacy, to experience the transition from breathing out to breathing in, and breathing in to breathing out.
What I am describing today – I am not suggesting that it is easy – but it is the direction that is possible to go. To settle in and let the mind become quiet – and really develop your sensory awareness. Sensory awareness is one of the forms of awareness or attention in the toolbox the Buddha is offering us in satipaṭṭhāna, in mindfulness practice. To cultivate, develop, and hone the tool of sensory awareness is really fantastic for the purpose of mindfulness.
So I encourage you, until we meet again on Monday, to spend the next couple of days studying and being curious about the sensations involved in your breathing. Take little time-outs through the day, maybe a minute or two. Maybe when you're waiting for the traffic to move, or you're waiting for something to happen, standing in line in a store. Use that as a time to just be curious. What is happening with your breath? How is your body experiencing the process of breathing? Get intimate with that – and curious and wise. Start becoming familiar with the range of different ways in which breathing is experienced.
Then we will continue with this process next week, and, at some point, expand it into mindfulness of the whole body as we're breathing. We will go through all four of the different steps of the first exercise in mindfulness of breathing. Thank you very much.