The Basics of Breathing

§ When the body is still, you gain knowledge from the body. When the mind is still, you gain knowledge from the mind. When the breath is still, you gain knowledge from the breath.

§ Ordinary, everyday breathing doesn’t do anything special for you except keep you from dying. The breathing on which your awareness is intent can give rise to all kinds of good things.

§ Ordinary breathing is the breath of suffering and stress. In other words, when it comes in it reaches a point of discomfort, so it has to go back out. When it goes out it runs into discomfort again, so it comes back in. This kind of breathing isn’t called meditation. Meditation means gathering all your awareness into the mind.

§ The present aspect of the body is the breath. The present aspect of the mind is mindfulness and alertness. So bring the present of the mind together with the present of the body.

§ The breath is like water. Mindfulness is like soap. The mind is like clothing. If you don’t keep washing the mind, it’ll get dirty. When your clothing isn’t white and clean, it doesn’t feel comfortable to wear.

§ Don’t put pressure on the breath, force it, or hold it. Let the breath flow easily and comfortably, as when you put a fresh egg in cotton batting. If you don’t throw it or push it down, the egg won’t get dented or cracked. This way your meditation will progress smoothly.

§ If the mind isn’t yet still, just watch the in-and-out breath without trying to notice whether it’s comfortable or not. Otherwise, the mind will start to stray. It’s like a farmer planting an orchard: If he mows down too much grass all at once, he won’t be able to plant all his trees in time and the grass will start growing again. He has to mow down just the area that he can plant in one day. That’s how he’ll get the results he wants.

§ Whether or not the breath is even, you have to keep your mindfulness even.

§ The breath is like waves. Mindfulness is like a boat. The mind is like a person sitting in the boat. If the waves of the breath aren’t still, the boat will tip or overturn, and the person in the boat will drown or at the least get into difficulties. You have to make your mind still like a boat that has cast anchor in the middle of the sea when there’s no wind or waves. The boat won’t tip, and the person in the boat will be still and at peace. This is the point where the mind enters the noble path: It’s a free mind with full power, released from the sway of the Hindrances.

§ The breath in the body isn’t limited just to the breath that flows in and out the nose. The breath in the body spreads out to every pore, like the vapor that gets exhaled from an ice cube. It’s much more refined than the air outside. When the internal breath goes out the pores, it gets reflected back into the body. This breath is called the supporting breath. It helps keep the body and mind cool and still. So when you breathe in, let the breath fill the inside of your body; when you breathe out, let it spread in all directions.

§ When you breathe in, you have to feel the effects of the inner breath in three parts of the body: (1) the lungs & heart; (2) the liver, stomach, & intestines; and (3) the rib cage & spine. If the breath doesn’t have an effect all over the body, you’re not getting the full results of concentration.

§ Hot breathing is destructive. It gives rise to pain and makes the body age. Cool breathing is constructive. Warm breathing is like medicine.

§ The common breath is like an emetic. The refined breath is like a curative. The intermediate breath is like a food supplement.

§ The common breath is long and slow. The refined breath is short and light. It can penetrate into every blood vessel. It’s a breath of extremely high quality.

§ If the breath is heavy, you can keep it in a narrow range. When it’s light, you have to make it broad. If it’s so light that it’s very refined, you don’t have to breathe through the nose. You can be aware of the breath coming in and out through every pore all over the body.

§ Wherever there’s pain in the body, focus on making the breath go past it if you want to get results. Suppose you have a pain in your knee: You have to focus on breathing all the way down to the ends of your toes. If you have a pain in your shoulder, focus the breath past it to your arm.

§ Breath subdues pain. Mindfulness subdues the Hindrances.

§ When we meditate it’s as if we were milling the rice grains in our granary so that they’ll be ready to cook. The mind is like grains of rice. The Hindrances are like the husks. We have to crack the husks and then polish away the dirty red skin underneath. That’s when we’ll end up with good, white rice. The way to polish is to use directed thought and evaluation. Directed thought is when we focus the mind on being aware of the in-and-out breath, which is like taking a handful of rice and putting it in the teeth of our mill. We have to make sure that the teeth of the mill are in good shape. If we’re aware of just the in-breath and then get distracted with the out-breath, it’s as if the teeth of our mill were broken. When this happens, we have to fix them immediately. In other words, we reestablish mindfulness on the breath and brush away all other perceptions.

Evaluation is being observant, taking careful note of the breath as we breathe in, to see what it’s like, to see whether it’s comfortable, easy, and free-flowing. We then let the good breaths spread throughout the body to chase out the bad breath sensations. All the properties of the body will become pure; the mind will become bright. The body will feel cool and at ease. We have to look after the breath in this way, in the same way that we catch baby chicks to put in the coop. If we hold them too tight, they die. If we hold them too loosely, they run away. We have to gather them in our hands in a way that’s just right. That way they’ll all end up safely in the coop.

When we use directed thought and evaluation, it’s as if we polish away the dirty red skin from our rice grains. We’ll end up with nice, white rice (rapture, pleasure, and singleness of preoccupation). If we take the rice to market, it’ll fetch a good price. If we cook it, it will taste good and nourish the body. This is why we should all be intent on polishing the rice in our granary so that we’ll end up with Grade A rice.

§ The factors of jhāna—directed thought, evaluation, rapture, and pleasure—all have to be gathered at the breath if you want to reach singleness of preoccupation. Directed thought is like laying claim to a piece of land. Evaluation is like planting it with seed. When the seed bears fruit, that’s rapture and pleasure.

§ Keeping awareness with the breath is directed thought. Knowing the characteristics of the breath is evaluation. Spreading the breath so that it permeates and fills the entire body is rapture. The sense of serenity and well-being in body and mind is pleasure. When the mind is freed from the Hindrances so that it’s one with the breath, that’s singleness of preoccupation. All of these factors of jhāna turn mindfulness into a factor for Awakening.

§ Spreading the breath, letting all the breath sensations spread throughout all the elements and parts of the body—the blood vessels, the tendons, etc.—is like cutting a system of connecting roads through the wilderness. Any country with a good system of roads is bound to develop, because communication is easy.

§ If we constantly adjust and improve the breath in the various parts of the body, it’s like cutting away the dead parts of a plant so that it can begin to grow again.

§ Directed thought, focusing on the breath, is like putting food in your mouth. Evaluation—adjusting, spreading, and improving the breath—is like chewing your food. If you chew it carefully before swallowing, the food will digest easily and give full benefits to your body. The digesting is the duty of the body, but if you want to get good results you have to help with the chewing. The more refined you can make the breath, the better the results you’ll get.

§ There are two kinds of evaluation when we meditate on the breath. The first is to evaluate the in-and-out breath. The second is to evaluate the inner breath sensations in the body until you can spread them out through all the properties of the body to the point where you forget all distractions. If both the body and mind are full, there’s a sense of rapture and ease that results from our directed thought and evaluation. This is Right Action in the mind.

§ One of the benefits from working with the breath is that the properties of the body become friendly and harmonious with one another. We spread the breath all over the body, and then when it grows still it gives you a sense of physical seclusion. This is one of the physical benefits. As for the mental benefits, mindfulness becomes enlarged. When mindfulness is enlarged, awareness is enlarged. The mind becomes an adult and doesn’t go sneaking off like an ordinary mind. If you want it to think, it thinks. If you want it to stop, it stops. If you want it to go, it goes. When the mind is well-trained it gains knowledge, like an educated adult. When you converse with it, you understand each other. The mind of a person who hasn’t trained it is like a child. This kind of mind doesn’t understand what you say and likes to slip off to roam around—and it goes without saying good-bye. You have no idea what it takes with it when it goes, or what it brings back when it returns.

§ When the breath, mindfulness, and awareness are all enlarged, they all become adults. They don’t get into spats with one another: the body doesn’t quarrel with the mind, mindfulness doesn’t quarrel with the mind. That’s when we can be at our ease.

§ When you spread the breath as you evaluate it, mindfulness runs throughout the body like an electric wire. Making yourself mindful is like letting the current run along the wire. Alertness is like the energy that wakes the body up. When the body is awake, pains can’t overcome it. In other words, it wakes up the properties of earth, water, fire, and wind so that they get to work. When the properties are balanced and full, they put the body at ease. When the body is nourished with breath and mindfulness like this, it grows into an adult. When the properties are at peace, they all become adults: the great frame of reference (mahāsatipaṭṭhāna). This is called threshold concentration, or evaluation.

§ When the mind is broad, wandering after outside perceptions, it loses the strength it needs to deal with its various affairs. Whatever it thinks of doing will succeed only with difficulty. It’s like a gun with a broad-gauged barrel. If you put tiny bullets into it, they rattle around inside and don’t come out with much force. The narrower the gauge of the barrel, the more force the bullets will have when you shoot them. It’s the same with the breath: The more you refine your focus, the more refined the breath will become, until eventually you can breathe through your pores. The mind at this stage has more strength than an atomic bomb.

§ Making the mind snug with mindfulness and the breath is like weaving cloth. If the weave is so fine that water won’t pass through, the cloth will fetch a high price. If you use it to sift flour, you’ll get very fine flour. If the weave is coarse, the cloth won’t be worth much. If you use it to sift flour, the flour will come out all lumpy. In the same way, the more refined you can make your awareness, the more refined and valuable the results you’ll get.

§ When the breath fills the body, awareness gets more refined. The breath that used to be fast will slow down. If it used to be strong, it will become more gentle. If it used to be heavy, it will grow light—to the point where you don’t have to breathe, because the body is full of breath, with no empty spaces. It’s like water we pour into a vessel until it’s full. That’s the point of enough; you don’t have to add any more. This sense of fullness gives rise to a feeling of coolness and clarity.

§ There are five levels to the breath. The first level is the most blatant one: the breath that we breathe in and out. The second level is the breath that goes past the lungs and connects with the various properties of the body, giving rise to a sense of comfort or discomfort. The third level is the breath that stays in place throughout the body. It doesn’t flow here or there. The breath sensations that used to flow up and down the body stop flowing. The sensations that used to run to the front or the back stop running. Everything stops and is still. The fourth level is the breath that gives rise to a sense of coolness and light. The fifth level is the really refined breath, so refined that it’s like atoms. It can penetrate the entire world. Its power is very fast and strong.

§ The most refined level of awareness, which is like atoms, has the same sort of power as an atomic bomb buried underground that can explode people and animals to smithereens. When the refined mind is buried in the breath, it can explode people and animals to smithereens, too. What this means is that when the mind reaches this level of refinement, its sense of “self” and “other” disappears without a trace. It lets go of its attachments to body and self, “people” and “beings.” This is why we say that it’s like an atomic bomb that can explode people and animals to smithereens.