The Direct Path

September 14, 1956

When you fix your attention on the breath, you must try to cut away all outside preoccupations. Otherwise, if you let yourself be distracted, you won’t be able to observe the subtleties of the breath and mind.

The breath energy in the body can be divided into three parts: one in the heart and lungs, another in the stomach and intestines, and a third in the blood vessels throughout the body. All three are breaths that are always moving; but there’s another breath—a still breath, light and empty—centered in the diaphragm, between the heart and lungs on the one hand and the stomach and intestines on the other. This breath is motionless, unlike the breath distilled in the heart and lungs. It exerts no pressure on any part of the body at all.

As for the moving breath, when it strikes the blood vessels it feels warm or hot, and sometimes causes excretions in your nose. If the breath is predominant over the fire property, it causes the blood to be cool. If the fire property is predominant over the breath property, it causes the blood to be hot. If these properties are combined in the right proportions, they give rise to a feeling of comfort and ease—relaxed, spacious, and still—like having an unobstructed view of the open sky. Sometimes there’s a feeling of ease—relaxed, spacious, but moving: This is called pīti, or rapture.

The best breath to focus on is the empty, spacious breath. To make use of the breath means to use whichever feeling is most predominant, as when you feel very relaxed, very empty, or very comfortable. If there’s a feeling of motion, don’t use it. Use just the feelings of emptiness, relaxation, or lightness. To use them means to expand their range so that you feel empty in every part of the body. This is called having a sense of how to make use of the feelings you already have. But in using these feelings, you have to be completely mindful and alert. Otherwise, when you start feeling empty or light, you might go thinking that your body has disappeared.

In letting these sensations expand, you can let them spread either one at a time or all together at once. The important point is that you keep them balanced and that you focus on the whole body all at once as the single object of your awareness. This is called ekāyana-magga, the direct path. If you can master this, it’s like having a white cloth that you can either keep hidden in your fist or spread out for two meters. Your body, although it may weigh 50 kilograms, may feel as light as a single kilogram. This is called mahā-satipaṭṭhāna—the great frame of reference.

When mindfulness saturates the body the way flame saturates every thread in the mantle of a Coleman lantern, the elements throughout the body work together like a group of people working together on a job: Each person helps a little here and there, and in no time at all, almost effortlessly, the job is done. Just as the mantle of a Coleman lantern whose every thread is soaked in flame becomes light, brilliant, and white, in the same way if you soak your mind in mindfulness and alertness so that it’s conscious of the entire body, both body and mind will become buoyant. When you think using the power of mindfulness, your sense of the body will immediately become thoroughly bright, helping to develop both body and mind. You’ll be able to sit or stand for long periods of time without feeling tired, to walk for great distances without getting fatigued, to go for unusually long periods of time on just a little food without getting hungry, or to go without food and sleep altogether for several days running without losing energy.

As for the heart, it will become pure, open, and free from blemish. The mind will become bright, fearless, and strong. Saddhā-balaṁ: Your sense of conviction will run like a car running without stop along the road. Viriya-balaṁ: Your persistence will accelerate and advance. Sati-balaṁ: Your mindfulness and alertness will be robust, capable of knowing both past and future. For instance, knowledge of past lives and knowledge of other beings’ death and rebirth: These two kinds of intuition are essentially forms of mindfulness. Once your mindfulness is fully developed, it can give you knowledge of people’s past actions and lives. Samādhi-balaṁ: Your concentration will become unwavering and strong. No activity will be able to kill it. In other words, no matter what you’re doing—sitting, standing, talking, walking, whatever—as soon as you think of practicing concentration, your mind will immediately be centered. Whenever you want it, just think of it and you’ve got it. When your concentration is this strong, insight meditation is no problem. Paññā-balaṁ: Your insight will be like a double-edged sword. Your insight into what’s outside will be sharp; your insight into what’s inside will be sharp.

When these five strengths appear in the heart, the heart will be fully mature. ‘Saddh’indrīyaṁ viriy’indrīyaṁ sat’indrīyaṁ samādh’indrīyaṁ paññ’indrīyaṁ’: Your conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment will be mature and pre-eminent in their own spheres. It’s the nature of mature adults that they cooperate. When they work together on a job, they finish it. So it is when you have these five adults working together for you: You’ll be able to complete any task. Your mind will have the power to demolish every defilement in the heart, just as a nuclear bomb can demolish anything anywhere in the world.

When your mind has this sort of power, liberating insight will arise like a lance with sharp edges on all four sides or a power saw whose blade has teeth all the way around. The body is like the stand on which the saw rests; the mind is the circular blade: Wherever it spins, it can cut through whatever is fed into it. This is the nature of liberating insight.

These are some of the results that come from knowing how to refine the breath and how to expand the still breath so that it benefits both body and mind. We should take these matters to heart and put them into practice as we are able, so as to share in these benefits.