2021-01-13 Mindfulness of Breathing (8) Four Dimensions of Breathing
5:11PM Jan 13, 2021
So, we'll continue now with this topic of the Buddha's 16 stages of mindfulness of breathing. And I want to repeat something I said at the beginning of the guided meditation, that, to really appreciate the value of how breathing sits at the crossroads of so much of our lives. And such a valuable reference point for understanding so much of our lives, it really helps to delve deeply into it, or rest deeply in the experience of breathing. And this is why the deeper we go, the more concentrated we become in this mindfulness of breathing, the more it brings together, processes together, opens up to so much in so many different areas and aspects of our life.
Breathing, in a sense, is a microcosm for understanding the rest of our lives. And there are many dimensions to breathing, to the experience of breathing. And of the four that I mentioned, there is what I call the horizontal dimension, which is the spread of sensations throughout the body that relate to breathing – as the body moves, as the diaphragm moves, and the lungs filled with oxygen, and then we let the air out.
To be connected to the movements of the body, or in the places where there is no movement – where things are held, maybe there's resistance, but to feel the whole impact of breathing in a particular moment, anywhere it might be experienced. I call that the vertical dimension.
The horizontal dimension is to become aware of the sensations of breathing in the body in a deeper and fuller way – to have an intimacy with it – like you're entering into, and really feeling fully each of the particular sensations that come into play. Not because we're straining to do so, but because we become more and more receptive. And it just comes to us, and shows itself more and more – this sensation dimension. It's a kind of a sensory awareness exercise. We're not following the air, the breath itself, even though we might use that language. Vipassanā is really the sensations of breathing that we're receiving, taking in, and experiencing.
Then there is the the time dimension, where we want to be able to follow the experience of breathing through time – the continuity of attention, the continuity of appreciation, unbroken appreciation of the breath, unbroken by the mind that pulls us away in distraction. This way of staying with the breath through time. If you really do it deeply and well, then it's almost like time disappears, even though there's continuity through time – continuity with the whole in-breath and whole out-breath.
If the breathing is fast and rapid, then there are hardly any sensations we feel when we're inhaling and exhaling. We're just aware of whatever is there. It's not wrong to breathe fast and experience almost no sensations. It's just: that's the way it is now, and we feel it that way. But as we settle in deeper and deeper, and get calmer, the tendency is for the breathing to slow down. And as it slows, there's more time to experience one inhale, and one exhale.
When I was a younger, sometimes I did a checklist approach to mindfulness of breathing. I would just sometimes use a mental note to denote the rising or falling of breathing in and out. And I would do it at the beginning of the inhale, like it was a duty. And if I say, "Rising," then I've done my job. And then I wouldn't pay attention to the rest of the inhale, because I had checked it off – done that – aware of the inhale. And then I would be aware of the beginning of the exhale – done that – check it off. And then I'd drift off in thought, and hopefully come back soon enough. And what I learned is not to have that checklist approach – not to be content just with a cursory awareness of the in-breath and out-breath, but really to stay with the whole length of the out-breath.
Sometimes it's a feeling that I'm staying with it. And sometimes it's more the feeling that it's staying with me – or that I'm just receiving it, letting it come. Having both options to play with is appropriate in different states of mind we have. Sometimes it may be hopeless to stay with the breath, unless we can stay with it, and direct ourselves to really stay there, because the mind is so intent on pulling us away.
At other times, staying there with the breath in a directed way is a little bit too forceful, a strain, or a little bit too active. And to really relax deeply, it's better to be in a receptive mode, and to receive it. So there's continuity of attention through time, which is the time dimension.
Then there is how we use the mind – directed or receptive, spacious or intimate, close or observing the breath from a distance, or like riding the waves of breathing. Or really being there at the heart of each sensation. These are all ways of being with the mind. So it's the mind dimension – the awareness dimension – that comes into play. And that's also being worked on, and is adjusting or finding its way. Some of that's done unconsciously, and some of it is done, kind of in the whole system adjusting itself, as we settle and get concentrated.
It's remarkable to watch the changes over time of the mind in the breathing, in the body, as we really enter into this depth, tenderness, intimacy, and continuity with breathing over time. Sometimes this is called the "breath body" – to fully experience all the different aspects of breathing: that continuity through time of the whole in-breath, the whole out-breath. Feeling it in different parts of the body, feeling how it comes into play. Having continuity from the beginning, middle, and end of the in-breath and out-breath. Maybe throughout the body, or maybe in a particular spot.
A spot that I often keep is right around the belly, sometimes just below the belly button, sometimes a little bit above it. It kind of moves and shifts as I get more concentrated. Sometimes my attention to my breathing goes up to my chest, and I stay there. My body seems to direct partly where my attention goes. I just follow wherever it seems most predominant, or most alive as I'm sitting and meditating. And sometimes I experience the whole breath body – a beautiful experience of expansion and contraction, like bellows. Or a balloon being blown up and then being released.
So the more that we're familiar with the breath, and resting with the breathing, then at some point – in this experience of the third step of breathing in experiencing the whole body, breathing out and experiencing the whole body – also spills over into parts of your body that are not directly connected to breathing. Partly this is because the mind is getting more settled, and less distracted. It's like turning on a light bulb in the mind. The light of awareness gets turned on – and it's ready to shine, and take in all the different aspects of present moment experience. And one way or another over time, people become more and more aware of their body.
If you're a beginner, sometimes it's because the body is uncomfortable. And then you start feeling the tensions of the body. There's a way in which the more subtle we become, and the more awareness gets turned on when we're sensitive – feeling our whole psychophysical system better, we become more and more aware of the tensions and the holding patterns in the body. And rather than being upset about that, I'd encourage you to feel grateful for it. It's much, much much better to know you have tension, than to have tension and not really know it. It's much better to really feel it, and be present for it than it is to ignore it, even though it's uncomfortable. The art of breath meditation is learning how to include the whole embodied experience as part of this breath meditation.
And so we become more and more embodied as we breathe. And then as practice deepens, the body begins to recede. So there's a period of time where the body becomes very embodied and full – and then the body gets lighter and recedes from the central focus – than how it can be at the beginning .
So the third step of ānāpānasati is, "One trains oneself: breathing in, experiencing the whole breath body. One trains oneself: breathing out, one experiences the whole breath body."
So, whether it's the guided tour of the breath we did yesterday, and that whole experience of breathing everywhere in the body – or the continuity through time, that breath body that's continuous through time – or all these different dimensions. But whatever you're doing, I hope you enjoy it. Or have the idea in the back of your mind that this is not meant to be grim, or pushing. Keep in mind that there is no failure with mindfulness of breathing. You can't fail. You can't do it wrong. So don't bother judging it, or comparing yourself.
Maybe the worst that can happen is that your mind drifts off a lot, and you can hardly be with your breathing. But the point is not really to be with your breathing. The point is to be aware of what's really happening here in the present moment. So if you become much more aware of the power of the mind to wander off in thought, because you're trying to stay with your breathing, then the meditation has succeeded.
If you're able to stay with the breath through time, then the meditation has succeeded. As long as you're aware of and notice what's happening, then it's a success. And if you drift off and are lost in thought – so lost in thought that you don't even know you're lost in thought – then there's no problem. You're too lost to know. And as soon as you wake up from that, and you're aware that you have been lost in thought, there's no problem anymore, because now you're aware.
So I like to say there are no problems in meditation. You can't do it wrong. If you're in the present moment and judge yourself, "I'm doing it wrong," at that moment, you have enough wherewithal to simply be aware. Because without that simple awareness, you wouldn't have made that judgment.
So that's my little plug to try to enjoy, and don't take it all too seriously. Settle in, and become more and more interested in your breath and your breathing. As I said, I think yesterday or before, you would benefit a lot in your meditation, if you make it really a regular thing through your day, every day, whenever you can – check in with your breathing. Do perhaps a three minute meditation, or a three breath meditation. Or sitting at a traffic light meditation with your breathing. Just look for lots of opportunities to come back to your breathing, come back to your breathing. So that it becomes more and more a habit to do so. If you do that, then all you're learning about mindfulness of breathing and meditation will actually come and benefit your life tremendously.