The ability to ‘breath’ oxygen is central to the human condition, and without this ability, human beings would have no life as such. It is important to recognise, therefore, that when consideration is given to the crucial nature of this biological function, less ‘actual’ attention is paid to it, during the lifetime of an individual. Indeed, the very concept of a ‘lifetime’ is dependent upon the over-all time engaged in this activity. It is usually the case that breathing as a distinct act only becomes noticeable when it begins to dysfunction in some way. That is, when, due to illness or accident, the breathing mechanism itself starts to function in an inefficient manner, the result of which is witnessed in a lack of oxygen entering the body, and the debilitating effect this has upon the other bodily functions. This demonstrates that breathing, (both as a concept and an activity), may be considered the key of life, and the continuous supply of oxygen, the fuel of life. When breathing ceases and oxygen no longer enters and nourishes the body cells, death of the individual is the result. Even a partial diminishing of oxygen in-take can damage organs beyond repair.
The ordinary conscious mind – in its undeveloped state – focuses its attention here and there as it chooses. It does not, because it can not, focus deliberately upon a single process, activity or behaviour. It jumps from one object of fixation, to another, never fully establishing contact, but instead interpreting the various objects in a thoroughly shallow manner, before going on to the next. This frittering of awareness has no time, (or discipline), to remain in one place long enough to establish ‘mindfulness’ of an object, and therefore a deeper understanding of that object. Conscious awareness, in this stage of non-development, is undisciplined and seeks gratification of the ‘new’, in a continuous cycle of searching, temporary fixation and rapid abandonment. From the Buddhist perspective, this kind of free associating consciousness is greedy for what it wants, hates what it can not acquire, and is deluded in as much as it does not comprehend or understand the repetitive (and destructive) nature of its behaviour. As a cycle of mind habit, this leads to behaviour in the physical world that demonstrates the limitation of such a mindset. The Buddha’s answer to this situation is that the continuously ‘moving’ mind must be ‘stilled’ using a meditative method. The apparent ‘stilling’ of mental movement breaks the chain of cause and effect in the mind, and thus allows an escape from the self-imposed cycle of deluded and painful repetition, which has hitherto defined the life of the individual, through behaviour within the community (i.e. society).
Fixing the conscious mind to a single point of reference is a typical Buddhist practice of meditation. Through the direction of willpower, a method of fixation is applied that initially limits, and then stops the disparate and unpredictable conscious swirling of the mind. The meditative method is imposed from a position of an ‘observer’ looking into the psychic movement. This is an important point to recognise, which suggests that there exists a perspective of mind that observes its own activities, this perspective, within the Ch’an schoolof Chinese Buddhism, is referred to as the ‘Mind Ground’. This observing entity, however, is obscured from direct cognition by the swirling and dense mass of unpredictable, mental activity. By stilling this activity, the clear, pure and ‘empty’ nature of the psychic fabric is laid bare to the meditator as ‘witness’, and the dichotomy of ‘form’ and ‘void’, ‘delusion’ and ‘enlightenment’, thoroughly transcended. Although there are many methods, or directed points of fixation advocated by the Buddha (and by Buddhist schools), focus upon the breathing mechanism is probably the key foundational technique of the Buddhist tradition, that all other derived methods have their roots within. The Buddha, in early Buddhism, spoke often about the need to focus the mind’s attention upon the breathing mechanism itself. However, the fundamental teaching about this method may be read within the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118), or ‘The Breath-Mindfulness Teaching’ of the Pali Canon. This is translated into Chinese as ‘安那般那念經‘, or ‘AnnabannaNianJing’. This translation appears to be solely ‘phonetic’ in origination, as the individual ideograms have no interpretive association with the act of ‘breathing’ itself, although the second ideogram ’般’ (ban1), is associated with ‘parinirvana’, (般涅槃)‘ within Chinese Buddhism, and of course, ‘念’ (nian4) refers to ‘mindfulness’. This concept of focusing attention upon the breath spread toChina very early on, and demonstrates the importance that such a meditative practice has within the early Buddhist tradition.
The breathing action itself may be defined as comprising of three distinct sections or aspects, whereby a complete inhalation and a full exhalation are completed. However, the practice is not as simple as it may appear. The aspirant must not only elongate both aspects of the breathing act fully, but in so doing, develop the concentration to ‘be aware’ of the entirety of the process as it unfolds, with no gaps or breaks in the perceptual process. This is to say that if the two aspects of breath last five seconds each, the mind must be fully and completely aware of the process with no distraction whatsoever, for the time period involved. This is the extending of the ability to concentrate on a single activity, and as breathing is continuous, it requires the concentration to extend beyond five seconds, and ten seconds or more, and to be established as a constant awareness with no time limit of endurance. More than this, however, whilst the mind’s attention is fixed upon the activity at hand, this concentration must not be dim or vague, but rather bright and alert. This meditation method requires the mind to be ‘aware’ of every part of breath, be it of an inhalation or an exhalation. Seeing the breath in a vague manner is not enough and completely ineffective as a method of focusing the mind. Insight into the very nature of the essence of the breath must be acquired through a continuous application of disciplined endeavour.
Generally speaking, the Buddha advises that the body must be organised before the mind can be trained. Invariably, this advice involves the act of retiring to the wilderness, to the foot of a tree, or a quiet room, before the meditation method can be efficiently applied in an effective manner. The ‘stilling’ of the body and the controlling and limiting of its natural functions, are prerequisites for the preparation of the ‘stilling’ of the mind. The effort of will required to successfully access a meditative practice requires the energy gathered from other, more mundane, everyday activities. Without this energy, the ‘break through’ force will not be generated, and the method will lack effectiveness. Sublimation of physical activities ensures that enough energy is present when the practice begins. Breathing is of course, a physical activity, one which benefits the body in its entirety, and one which can increase or decrease the body’s vitality, depending upon function. Focusing on a complete breath involves the use of the fullest breath possible, whilst remaining physically comfortable and relaxed. This in turn ensures a greater in-take of oxygen which powers the body cells, and allows for a greater dispelling of carbon dioxide and water vapour, as by-products of the metabolic process. As deep breathing requires the lower lung to expand and extend, a muscular ripple passes down toward the pelvic girdle with the inward breath, and reverse and travels up toward the lower lung area with the outward breath. This action stimulates and invigorates the digestive system, and in-turn, helps regulate the endocrine system. As there is a large increase in the presence of oxygen available in the body at anyone time, this has the effect of slowing the heart down, which although beating slower, beats stronger as a result. The relaxation of the musculature allows the oxygen rich blood to be pumped to the extremities and back, by the action of a relaxed heart muscle. In the seated meditation posture, the bones are aligned, which means that the bodyweight is drawn efficiently down through the middle of the bone, (stimulating the bone marrow), and rebounds when making contact with the ground, travelling up the bones – these two actions happen simultaneous and continuously. Non-aligned bones are a product of a poor posture which causes undue stress upon the inner organs and body joints. The meditation posture, with its upright spinal column allows, for the optimum development of body health. From the upright and naturally curved spinal column, all the inner organs hangs correctly and do not hinder one another. The bones and joints are correctly placed in relation to one another, which allow the musculature to relax and the oxygenated blood to flow smoothly. With all this in place, the lungs can be used to their fullest extent within the breathing process. The organisation of the body into a seated meditation postures facilitates a firm seated foundation, although, of course, elsewhere in the Buddhist teachings, a number of different meditation positions are discussed. This firm foundation is in direct and immediate contact with the ground, which is representative of the earth. This is further symbolic of the broad expanse of the planet, which serves as a metaphor for the extent to which the mind’s awareness must be developed. From this contact with the ground, the scene is set for a complete rejuvenation of the inner and outer body, and the establishment of the concentration of the mind.
Focusing on the breath in a seated posture allows for the inward breath to enter through the nose. This is achieved through the development of the awareness of the air passing the tip of the front of the nose. From here, the nose is filled and air is felt in the upper nasal structures before moving toward the back of the throat and down into the lung area. As the lower lung is expanding downward, the intestinal area is gently compressed, giving the impression that the abdominal cavity is filling with air – this is a good indication that a deep and proper breath has been established, an should be allowed to naturally occur. As the outward breath develops, air is released from the lower, middle and upper lung, coming up toward the back of the throat, into the upper nasal area, and out through the nose, passing the tip of the nose as it does so. During this process, any muscular tension that is experienced anywhere in the body is relaxed (and released) with the outward breath. During this process, the mind must be consciously aware of the entirety of the inner body, and the entirety of the outer body. The physical structure of the body is enthused with awareness, so that no part remains outside of a continuous, perceptual analysis. Breathing, as a physical process is part of this total and far reaching sensitivity. This is important to note, as not one single part of the body remains unaffected by the breathing process itself. This clearly demonstrates that ‘breathing’ is ‘life’, and that this statement is of a practical nature, rather than of a theoretical speculation.
Breathing as an activity contains three distinct phases:
1) Inward breath
2) Transitional breath.
3) Outward breath.
The three aspects of the breath must be fully established, clarified and understood, if the meditation upon them is to be successful. The inward breath is the gathering of energy, (Sanskrit ‘prana’. Chinese ‘qi’-氣). This is the in-take of oxygen as it enters the body from the outside, through the nose. The air first enters the middle lung area, and when a deep and full breath is emphasised, the air travels into, and inflates the large area of the lower lung, and simultaneously travels upward, inflating the smaller area of the upper lung. When all areas of both lungs are inflated, a full and deep breath has occurred. At the point of the maximum in-take of air, a natural saturation of the body cells (with enriching oxygen) occurs. At this time, no further air can enter the lungs and there is a moment of stasis – a perfect balance that is the ‘transitional experience between the ‘inward’ and the ‘outward’ breaths. Such a perfect transition can only be experienced with a deep and full breath that has conscious awareness closely associated with it. The optimised experience of a full inward breath, and the subsequent entering of a perfect ‘transitional’ state, (have implicit in it), a profound sense of physical and psychological well being. The in this enhanced state, lungs are performing their intended biological function to the highest degree. In-turn, the body cells are bathed in oxygen and a general sense of well-being is achieved. At this point of ideal balance, the state of stasis must necessarily give way to an outward breath. This outward breath relieves the body cells of the waste products of the metabolic activity, within which, oxygen is used as a a fuel. The outward breath expels any unused oxygen, carbon dioxide and water vapour. This regains a transitional stasis as the potentially dangerous by-product of carbon dioxide – the consequence of the body cells burning oxygen to live – is expelled from the body. With the outward breath, the air is released from the lower lung first, and is followed in-turn by the middle and upper areas. As the body has become ‘cleansed’ of unusable substances, and bearing in-mind that enriching oxygen has been distributed system-wide, a transitional stasis is achieved based upon the emptiness of the lungs. This emptiness is the preparation for the next in-take of air. The transitional stasis occurs after each inward breath, and each outward breath. As such, ‘transition’ precedes each inward and each outward breath in an endless cycle of activation – deactivation of the body’s oxygen in-take system. Awareness of the complete breathing cycle can not be fully established if the transitional breath is not cognised, and its crucial pivotal role understood. Awareness, in this sense, cascades into a full appreciation of the full complex nature of what it means to breathe correctly and fully. This mind generated awareness follows each individual segment of the breathing event, being completely aware of every second of activity without any break or interruption. This continuation of awareness is ‘aware’ that breathing is taking place, the general aspect of which part of the breathing cycle is happening at a precise moment, and the ‘feeling’ of each moment as it arises, manifests and passes away. The physical process of breathing, in its complete and full manifestation, allows for a mirroring of conscious awareness. The ‘physical’ and the ‘mind’ aspects come together in a nexus of a profound existential ‘presence’. It is this exact development of the presence of thought with a physical movement of a biological process, that the Buddha utilises as a means to develop the mind in accordance with the Dharma. The process of ‘breathing’ is made manifestly present, and becomes the focus of an all-absorbing attention, to which the mind is affixed upon, through an effort of volition. Through the profound attention to he breath, the Buddha teaches that all aspects of the enlightened mind can be effectively cultivated and ultimately realised without recourse to sophistry, false dharmas, incorrect beliefs, or reliance upon the idea of an underlying, permanent self.
Bare attention contains the breath in the cultivated stage. In the uncultivated, ordinary stage, the breath appears as a separate object outside of the awareness itself. Awareness and breath in the latter stage are not obviously connected or entwined in any usable sense. The two entities happen to exist in a single body, with no integrated common aim. Breath meditation is the means to unite these aspects and focus them toward the goal of mind development. Once mindfulness has been achieved, the following of the breath is then used as a means to undermine greed, hatred and delusion, as they manifest in the surface movements of the mind. It is these surface movements that are eventually ‘stilled’ as the force of concentration builds in strength. The continuous nature of the breath builds the awareness that follows it until the concentration becomes just as continuous. The previously chaotic mind movement is stooped in its craziness, and the attention turned back upon itself – focused into position by the breath itself. The inward breath no only draws fresh energy into the body and mind, but prepares the system for the expulsion of the waste products. In the mind, this is the disposal of habitual afflictions that leave the mind with the outward breath, after being firmly observed with the inner breath. The outer breath not only dispels waste products (and afflicted thought patterns), but also assists the distribution of oxygen, (i.e. essential energy) throughout the system. The body is re-energised and the mind purified so that a sense of well-being is established. This is the direct effect of the enthusing of bare awareness through animated physical matter.
The inward breath anticipates the emptying of the lungs – a peaceful expectation – whilst the outward breath thoroughly empties the lungs and distributes the energy throughout the living system, leading to a momentarily ‘stilling’ of the breathing process, which is perceived as a profoundly peaceful experience. When awareness is closely associated with the breathing process, any emotional feelings present in the mind are absorbed into the breathing mechanism and dissolved of their ‘feeling’ content. The cultivation of bare awareness is the method through which the human mind can be existentially freed from the inner habitual content of its everyday working, as it responds to the outer world. This is a direct example of how the painful working of the mind can be reduced and transformed through a Buddhist meditational method. Although the body is at rest, and the mind calmed, the body, of course, is still ‘moving’ as a result of the breathing mechanism and the other metabolic processes. The physical ‘stillness’ of this meditation practice is defined as that which does not involve the moving about of the body itself, in such activities as walking or running, etc. When the body is seated and stationery, the mind, via conscious control is not required to administer the safety variables associated with movement through the environment, and the dangers such movement potentially entails. Although there are structured physical activities that can accompany the technique of following the breath, the practice of ‘anapanasati’, (i.e. ‘breathe mindfulness’), is specifically performed in a stationery physical manner. As the body is kept deliberately ‘free’ of direct physical movement, the swirling chaos of the mind is brought to a stand still, even though the physical movement of breathing continues unabated. The movement of breathing, as it engages and dissolves painful, emotional entanglements and habitual thought patterns, becomes ever more associated and established with mind stillness. This apparent paradox integrates the principle of movement with that of the state of stillness, so that physical movement does not continue to be associated with the development or encouragement of inner thoughts that are intrinsically indistinguishable from particular actions themselves. This allows for the philosophical appreciation that ‘stillness’ is not necessarily ‘still’, and that ‘movement is not necessarily ‘movement’. From the state of ‘stillness’, the principle of ‘emptiness’ is clearly perceived, and with it, the realisation that ‘emptiness’ is not necessarily ‘empty’. Within a continuous conscious awareness, an awareness that is spacious and boundless, the reality of ‘physical presence’ manifests quite naturally, with no contradiction whatsoever.
A sustained focus upon the breath allows for a profound unfolding of tranquillity and insight to occur. The simple act of following the breath in the Buddhist manner allows for the aspirant to develop the mind from a state of chaos, to a state of enlightenment. Another meditative activity maybe added to the following of the breath itself, such as chanting a sacred mantra, or focusing the thought aspect of mind upon a symbol of visualisation, (or a puzzle or riddle-like question), that brings intellection to a standstill through the use of it in a specific manner designed to reveal its essence, such as the gong-an method found within Chinese Ch’an Buddhism. In these examples, the concentration upon the breath is imbued with a deep intellectual enquiry that eventually bursts through the boundaries of the limited, everyday use of this cerebral function. This is mind developed beyond mind, through the use of the breathing mechanism itself, which allows for an expansion of awareness throughout the entirety of the physical body itself, as if the ‘whole’ body ‘breaths’ in, and ‘breaths ‘out’. The fully developed attention can be placed upon the entire body, or upon various and specific areas and processes. In this way, the body is fully comprehended, feeling is fully comprehended, and the mind is fully comprehended, as are mind objects, and attachment to ordinary and advanced states of mind fully abandoned.