2021-01-04 Mindfulness of Breathing (1): Introduction
4:57PM Jan 4, 2021
Good day and nice to be here with all of you. As we begin this week, for the theme of this week, and for the coming weeks, I would like it to be mindfulness of breathing. There are a number of motivations for this. One is that it's beginning of the year. And I thought it would be good to go back to basics. And now many of us have been here now for many months, at the 7am sitting. We've done a wide range of teachings and ideas. But it's also good to come back to basics.
In a sense, I think it's always good to start over again, as if we're beginners almost. And one of the basic practices that I like to teach is mindfulness of breathing, which I think is pretty obvious, since in most of the guided meditations I've been doing, breathing has been a big part of it.
So back to basics. But also because the Buddha's teachings on breathing and the full potential of mindfulness of breathing is not just as a beginner practice, or a basic practice - it's really a practice that can take us all the way to awakening. It's all the full depth and range of what Buddhism is about. Much of it is available through mindfulness of breathing. The path of practice can be negotiated through the path of mindfulness of breathing.
And one of my favorite teachings of the Buddha, is, in fact, his specific, detailed instructions for mindfulness of breathing. He gives 16 steps, 16 stages as a map for deepening, or filling out the experience of mindfulness of breathing, all the way to awakening. And in these 16 steps, there is an opportunity to look at a whole series of different aspects of the spiritual life, meditation life, our own life, that goes deeper and deeper. So it's no longer is the basic beginning practice which breathing can be. But the breathing opens up to these other dimensions, which are quite wonderful.
And so over this next period, I'd like to go through the 16 stages of mindfulness of breathing. And some people know it by its Pali name, it's usually called Ānāpānasati, in which sati means mindfulness, and ānāpāna means breathing in and breathing out - inhaling, exhaling. It begins very simply. And then it develops as the concentration develops, as the intimacy develops.
It becomes more and more developed this whole teaching and this practice. So I don't know how long it'll take. But I thought that we would just kind of have that open-ended for a while, as we go through these. Maybe for the month of January. And I trust that to do this will create a very strong foundation for the rest of the year. And I'm pretty confident also, the foundation you have had from these last nine months of the 7am sitting will serve you really well for going through this ānāpānasati.
I know that for some people, mindfulness of breathing doesn't work so well. There are many reasons for that, and for not having breathing as the central focus of meditation. It's completely fine to have other focuses, or practice in other ways. But since this is what I've been doing so much over these last months, I'm trusting that the people who those of you who are sticking with this have some beneficial relationship to mindfulness of breathing, and, and so that it will work for you. But if you don't, you're welcome to ignore the references to breathing, and translate it to how you're practicing. Because some of the dynamics of the how things unfold, evolve, in these 16 steps of ānāpānasati also unfold with other meditation subjects, other ways pf doing mindfulness practice. And so hopefully, you'll be able to recognize yourself in some of these other steps as we go along - and see how they come into play for you.
And so breathing, I've been I've been practicing mindfulness of breathing for probably 45 years, and I do not tire of it. I find it actually becomes richer and more interesting as time goes along. And, and it's one of my favorite things to do. And I feel very grateful. I feel like I've been transformed in wonderfully beneficial ways of this mindfulness of breathing practice that I do.
And it's a mindfulness practice of breathing that's not pure mindfulness. One of the reasons I like to emphasize mindfulness of breathing, is that staying with breathing has a dual function. It's a wonderful place to cultivate mindfulness. And it's also a wonderful place to cultivate concentration. And to be able to cultivate those together is one of the benefits of mindfulness of breathing compared to other objects of mindfulness.
And, and this is the 16 steps of mindfulness of breathing is clearly also a way of developing concentration, together with a constant mindful awareness of breathing itself. And so that's one of the reasons I like doing it. Also, like just the intimacy with breathing, the intimacy with oneself.
Breathing is not just a mechanical activity. It's not just simply an exchange of oxygen with carbon dioxide in our body, where how much we need to breathe, how much oxygen we need to take in, depends on the activities we're involved in. And so like, you know, running requires us to breathe differently than if we're sitting quietly. But also breathing shifts and changes based on our relationship to what's happening in the world, our relationship to ourselves, depending on the emotions that come up for us. Even our thoughts and what we think about and how we relate to our thinking, can very subtly affect how we're breathing.
It's kind of like our whole life has threads that are intimately connected to how we breathe. And so breathing sits at the crossroads of so much of our life. And, and sometimes if you sit at a crossroads, everything comes in there sooner or later. Or to change the analogy. It said that if you're a nature photographer, in the plains of Africa, and you want to take pictures of a lot of animals, that one really good way to do that is just sit at the watering hole, and wait. And all the animals sooner or later have to come to the watering hole, so you get to see them. And it's a lot easier than going around searching through the plains for the animals.
And so the same way with mindfulness or breathing, just about everything is related to breathing one way or the other. And so we sit there at the breathing, and trusting that what needs to be taken care of, what needs to be attended to, will show itself in the breathing and how we breathe. All are connected.
We see this deep connection to breathing to the rest of our lives, in some of the wonderful Greek and Latin words related to breathing. So in Greek, psycho, is related to the word breath or breathing. And so psychology which is literally the study of breathing. Or psycho is also related in Greek to mind or spirit. And so, this whole way the breathing, and mind, or spirit, or inner life are connected, expressed in this Greek word for psycho.
And same thing we see in the Latin words for breath, spiritus, like the word respire, respiration, has the word the spiritus in it. And to respire is to breathe again. And so the word spiritual contains within it this word for breathing. Spirit is related to the Latin word for breathing. And I'm very fond of the idea that the two words spiritual and inspiration, both have this Latin word for breathing connected to them.
And and then we have this wonderful life like it since we're all together here and 7am in the morning, that the words conspiracy, conspirators also have the word breathing in it. So, we are a group of morning meditation conspirators, breathing together for these days.
So, and you find that in other languages as well, that the word for breathing is closely connected to words for our inner psychic energy or life force - the qi within us, the prana within us. And it seems to be a very common idea in human cultures, that breathing is very closely connected to something deep, inner, spiritual - or the soul, the spirit, the mind, the heart, something quite intimate.
And so I find that quite marvelous that our breathing is sometimes can feel, as the most intimate thing within us connected to what's most intimate. But it's also the interface with what is most intimate with what is most not-self, not ourselves. Some people might say what's greater than self, but I think Buddhists would say maybe what is most not self - that breathing is most our own. And most something which is not something we own. There's the interface, and to play with this - this wonderful interplay between this intimacy, and the something that's beyond self, or greater than self, or freer than self. It's right there together with the breathing. This points to the potential of breathing.
Now, it's not automatic that people should feel this intimacy, or this wonderful potential, that mindfulness of breathing has. And even for me, after all these years of practice, there are times when I sit down to meditate, and the breathing is far from a pleasant, intimate experience. I have something that I call my cardboard breath, where it just feels like cardboard. It just feels kind of dead and tasteless, and, and uninspired.
And I've learned that that's just how it is sometimes, and I just go along with it. And soon, sooner or later, it will change and be something else. And I just trust that it's okay to be mindful, regardless of the breath - regardless of how the breath is. I don't have to have the breath be sweet, or wonderful, or intimate. I just trust that it's good, really good, just to be with the breath as it is.
Especially with people who are new, they can't imagine how much breathing is so wonderful and so profound. It seems so boring, and plain, and so far away from the things that really give juice and excitement and energy to life - or far away from things will keep us safe.
And so it is something that takes a while to learn and to settle in. But as we find the potential of really settling in and being relaxed, an inner world opens up. And the inner world which I like to think of represented by the English expression, breathing room. We sit in order to find lots of breathing room - to give breathing room to our full life, to have breathing room for our mind, our thoughts, our hearts. And rather than beomg claustrophobic, breathing helps give all this room. There's something about settling in, and focusing on breathing, that makes more room - makes more intimacy, makes more clarity in this life as we go along.
So that's a general introduction to the plan for the next period of time. And so I'll do some more introductory words tomorrow around mindfulness of breathing, specifically referring to the discourse that the Buddha taught on mindfulness of breathing. And then we'll start the 16 steps. So, thank you so much for being part of this, and being here and I look forward to our time tomorrow.