Chapter Three

Meditation in Practice

As we noted in the preceding chapter, meditation lies at the heart of the skills needed for dealing with the problems you encounter as the body ages, grows ill, and dies. Of the various meditation themes the Buddha teaches for this purpose, the most central is mindfulness of breathing.

This may seem ironic. It’s easy to understand that working with the breath might be helpful when dealing with aging and illness. After all, working with the breath energies in the body can often help to alleviate weakness and pain. But at death, the breath stops. How could a meditation topic be a helpful preparation for death if it abandons you when you need it most?

The answer lies in the way the Buddha taught breath meditation. He has you direct attention not only to the breath, but also to the three types of fabrication—bodily, verbal, and mental—as they become clear when you focus on the breath. In this way, breath meditation develops both tranquility and insight at the same time. It teaches you to deal directly with the root causes of craving and suffering so that you’ll have them mastered prior to the moment of death. Your hands-on knowledge of these types of fabrication will stand you in good stead as you negotiate the choices presented to you when death occurs.

Still, breath meditation is not the only type of meditation that the Buddha recommended for this purpose. And he didn’t teach breath meditation cold. He often prefaced it with other contemplations. The most striking instance was when he taught breath meditation to his son, Rāhula (MN 62). Before detailing the steps for mindfulness of breathing, he taught Rāhula a whole series of contemplations to prepare his mind for focusing on the breath:

contemplation of physical properties,

the brahmavihāras,

contemplation of the body, and

contemplation of inconstancy.

As it turns out, these contemplations develop the right understanding and mental skills for dealing with specific issues surrounding aging, illness, and death as well.

For this reason, this chapter will focus on these preliminary contemplations first before turning to the practice of breath meditation itself.

These contemplations make use of verbal and mental fabrication to develop attitudes and values that are conducive for the right practice of meditation. In other words, you talk to yourself and use mental imagery to train the mind to develop views that will help you get the most out of meditation. At the same time, you learn to appreciate those views as aids in approaching the larger problems of life.

Contemplation of Physical Properties

The physics of the Buddha’s time divided the physical world into five properties: earth, water, wind, fire, and space. It’s easy to dismiss these properties as a primitive version of the elements taught by modern chemistry, but that would be to misunderstand them. To look at the world in terms of these properties is to view it, not in terms of its chemical building blocks, but in terms of how it basically feels: Earth feels solid, water feels cool, fire feels warm, wind feels like energy, and space feels unobstructed. These five properties, taken together, cover the various ways in which the physical world presents itself directly to your sense of awareness—both inside the body and in the world outside.

The purpose of contemplating these properties is to develop some dispassion toward them so that the mind can learn not to identify with the body, and to see that it ultimately doesn’t have to depend on the body. This realization will be helpful in developing some equanimity around the decay of the body as it ages and grows ill. It will also help curb the felt need to latch on to another body when you have to leave this body at death.

1. The first step in the contemplation of the properties is to see that anything composed of the properties is simply not worth identifying as your self. There are three ways to do this.

a. You can contemplate the general principle that, because the properties are inconstant, all physical phenomena are inconstant. Because they’re inconstant, they’re stressful. And because they’re inconstant and stressful, they’re not worth claiming as you or yours. They’re not-self. You can use the body for a while, but only for a while, so while you can, try to use it well for the sake of the well-being of the mind. But be prepared for the fact that it’ll start malfunctioning without asking your permission, and eventually will not respond to your commands at all.

b. You can contemplate the fact that the physical properties that make up your sense of the body are no different from the physical properties of the world outside. This contemplation helps to drive home the point that your body is nothing special. It’s subject to all the mishaps that can happen to any physical object: It can be attacked, crushed, and broken just like a clay pot. So if you latch on to a body, you’re exposing yourself to the potential for all kinds of suffering.

c. You can imagine in detail the various parts of the body that most clearly manifest the different properties. Although all five properties permeate all matter, they’re more prominent in some parts of the body than others. For example, the earth aspect of the body is clearest in the hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, and all your internal organs. The water aspect is clearest in the fluids in the body, such as blood, sweat, saliva, and tears. The fire aspect is clearest in the warmth of digestion and the warmth of the body as a whole. The wind aspect is clearest in the different ways energy flows in the body—going up, going down, spreading through every part of the body, and most prominently in the in-and-out breath. Space is clearest in the nostrils, the mouth, and the ears, although when space is developed as a meditation object, it’s possible to perceive space as permeating all matter—a perception that’s in line with our current knowledge of how atoms are composed largely of space.

When the body is taken apart in this way, it’s hard to identify with any of the parts. So why identify with these same parts when they’re put together and wrapped up in skin?

The Buddha notes that when you engage in any of these three approaches to contemplating the body in terms of its properties, it’s easy to allow the various properties, one by one, to fade from the mind—not out of hatred for them, but simply from disinterest (MN 140). The word for “fade,” in Pali, is related to the word for dispassion: virāga. Your interest in the body fades, at least for the time being. This will be helpful as you meditate on the breath, in that thoughts fixated on the beauty or importance of the body will be less likely to distract you from the breath. This lack of interest will also be helpful as aging, illness, and death approach, in that you’ll be less blown away by negative changes in the body.

When your interest in the properties of the body fades from the mind in the course of these contemplations, that leaves awareness itself as the object of your awareness.

2. The Buddha then recommends developing meditation “in tune with” the five properties. This may seem ironic—after detaching your awareness from them, you then try to develop qualities in the mind that imitate one of their aspects—but there’s nothing ironic about it at all. Only when you separate things out like this can you can see clearly what’s skillful and what’s unskillful in what you’ve learned to detach yourself from.

And what’s skillful in those properties? You reflect on how they feel no disgust at disgusting things. When you throw trash on the earth, it doesn’t recoil; when you use water to wash away trash, it’s not repelled; fire burns trash, and wind blows trash around, with no sense of distaste. In the same way, you develop the aspect of the mind that can be present with pleasing or disgusting things and yet not be overcome by any sense of like or dislike.

As for space, you reflect that it’s not established anywhere—it’s not centered anywhere—so in the same way you try to develop the aspect of your awareness that doesn’t get fixated on pleasing or disgusting things.

In other words, for your awareness to be in tune with earth and the other properties, you simply take note of things that come into your awareness without allowing your likes and dislikes to cloud your vision of what’s actually going on.

This type of meditation requires two skills: The first is learning to perceive value in the attitude that is non-reactive. It simply takes note of their presence and sees them for what they are. The second is that you try to restrain the mind from engaging in the mental activities that would react to things as being likable or disagreeable. When thoughts of that sort arise, you regard them as something to let go because they’re “out of tune” with the quality of mind you’re trying to develop: patient, enduring, restrained.

It’s important to note that this contemplation doesn’t treat non-reactivity as the goal. As we’ll see when we come to the steps of breath meditation, those steps require that you do more than simply note the presence of the breath. You use the breath to proactively fabricate skillful states in body and mind. But to trust your ability to observe what’s actually working and not working as you do that, you first have to become a reliable observer: one who can be with agreeable or disagreeable things and not be overcome by them. This is precisely the ability developed by these meditations “in tune” with the properties.

It’s also important to note that meditating in tune with earth, etc., is not choiceless awareness, nor is it bare. You’re choosing which activities of the mind are skillful, in line with the perception of earth, etc., and which ones are not, favoring the first and abandoning the latter. In doing that, you’re not just aware of those activities. You’re practicing restraint.

When you observe and understand the role played by verbal and mental fabrication as you practice restraint in this way, you’re developing reflective skills that will be helpful both as you approach breath meditation and as you have to deal with the problems of aging, illness, and death. The more quickly you can pull yourself out of the mind’s likes and dislikes, the more you’ll be freed from deluded emotions. The more you can understand how the mind is actually functioning as it steps back in this way, the clearer you’ll be about how you fabricate your experience.

These mental skills will keep you from falling for random thoughts that would otherwise destroy your concentration, or that would interfere with your attempts to deal skillfully with aging, illness, and death. They help you to maintain your focus on the real work at hand.

The Brahmavihāras

The brahmavihāras, or sublime attitudes, are attitudes of goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity that you spread to all beings, without limit: in other words, with no limit to the amount of goodwill, etc., that you spread, and no limit on the number of beings to whom you spread it. Each of these attitudes is an antidote for mental states that can get in the way of training the mind.

Goodwill, a wish that beings will be happy, is an antidote for ill will, the desire to see beings suffer.

Compassion, a wish that those who are suffering will be freed from their suffering, is an antidote to cruelty, the desire to actually harm others when they’re in a position to be harmed.

Empathetic joy, a wish that those who are already happy will continue to be happy, is an antidote to resentment.

Equanimity, the ability to maintain the mind on an even keel when events don’t fall in line with your goodwill, is an antidote to irritation.

These attitudes boil down to two—goodwill and equanimity—in that compassion and empathetic joy are basically extensions of goodwill. Compassion is what goodwill feels when encountering suffering; empathetic joy is what goodwill feels when encountering those who are already happy. The Buddha may have separated them out from goodwill in his list of the brahmavihāras because they’re good checks for the honesty of your goodwill. If people whose behavior you don’t like are suffering the consequences of that behavior, is your goodwill sincere enough to want to see their suffering end? If people whose behavior you don’t like are enjoying the fruits of past good actions, can you honestly say that you’re happy for their good fortune?

Equanimity is the backup for cases where, for the time being at least, there’s nothing you can do to stop people from suffering or creating the causes of suffering.

This means that you develop each of these qualities where appropriate. You don’t regard equanimity as the goal of the practice. In fact, the Buddha never recommends developing equanimity on its own. It always has to be developed with a cluster of other qualities, such as goodwill, so that it doesn’t shade into apathy or indifference. And to give it a solid basis, the Buddha always recommends developing a sense of deep inner well-being first—either through the practice of concentration or by fostering insight—so that your equanimity doesn’t turn lifeless and dry (SN 36:31; MN 137).

Notice that you practice developing these attitudes toward all beings—including yourself. It’s easy to feel goodwill, for example, for those you like, or equanimity toward those who have no connection to you. But it requires a conscious effort to be able to maintain these attitudes toward anyone and everyone. It’s not the case that the brahmavihāras are the heart’s innate nature. After all, their opposites can come just as naturally to the heart. It’s just as easy to feel ill will for those who have betrayed you or your loved ones as it is to feel goodwill for those who behave in ways you like.

So in making your goodwill and equanimity limitless, you’re learning to take these attitudes that tend to be partial and you intentionally erase any trace of partiality in how you apply them. In doing so, you lift your human mind to the level of the brahmās, the highest level of heavenly beings, who have developed the sublime attitudes to the point where they can extend them to everyone, no matter who, no matter where.

This takes effort, which means that the sublime attitudes are a type of kamma. And to best understand how to develop them, you have to understand how the principles of kamma apply to them.

Start with goodwill. Given that goodwill is a state of mind that aspires to happiness, you have to understand the kamma both of happiness and the kamma of developing goodwill as a state of mind. And it’s easiest to develop this understanding by seeing how the Buddha regards your wishes for your own happiness. After all, you can know other people’s wishes for happiness only through inference, but you can directly know your own. Once you understand yours, you’re in a good position to extrapolate from that understanding to understand theirs.

As the Buddha notes, happiness comes from acting on skillful mind states, and all skillful mind states start with heedfulness: the recognition that there are dangers in life, but that your actions can determine whether you’ll succumb to those dangers or keep yourself safe. This attitude contains a rudimentary understanding of kamma—that your actions will make a difference in whether you suffer or not—and of goodwill for yourself: You want to keep yourself safe.

To stay safe, you always have to act in harmless ways, which means that you have to act with goodwill at all times. This requires that you develop goodwill for all, regardless of how they have treated you in the past. If you allow yourself to feel ill will for anyone, you can’t trust yourself to act in a harmless way toward that person. To ensure that your outside actions are skillful in all circumstances, you have to extend the sublime attitudes toward people and other living beings in all situations. And particularly when you’re meditating, you don’t want thoughts of ill will, cruelty, resentment, or irritation to obstruct the concentration or discernment you’re trying to develop.

So you extend goodwill to all, regardless of whether they “deserve” to be happy. Remember the example of the Buddha, who taught the way to the end of suffering to all beings, regardless of whether they “deserved” to suffer or not.

Then you reflect on how other living beings will have to act to be truly happy: Just like you, they’ll have to create the causes for true happiness. So when you extend thoughts of goodwill to others, you’re not thinking, “May you be happy doing whatever you’re doing.” You’re thinking, “May you understand the causes for true happiness and be willing and able to act on them.” This is an attitude you can extend to all beings, without hypocrisy, regardless of how they’ve behaved in the past.

Now, in some cases—where people have been particularly cruel—this may be difficult. You might feel that justice requires that they suffer first before they change their ways. But you have to remind yourself that people rarely see the connection between their misbehavior and their suffering, so wishing for them to suffer—even when it seems to serve the cause of justice—would rarely foster the causes for true happiness in the world. It’s better to wish that people come to their senses and have a change of heart on their own, and that you’d be willing to aid them in that process in whatever way you can. After all, wouldn’t you prefer to come to your senses without having to be punished first for your past wrongdoings? Allow others the same chance.

Of course, there will be those who are misbehaving and refuse to change their ways, and there’s nothing—at least for the moment—you can do about it. That’s why equanimity is a necessary part of brahmavihāra practice. You reflect that beings are free to choose their actions, and you’re in no position to guarantee that everyone will choose to be skillful. Not even the Buddha could do that. So to keep your focus on training your own mind, you have to develop equanimity in cases where other people are beyond your ability to influence in a skillful direction.

This thought allows you to focus on the inner work that needs to be done to develop the brahmavihāras in an unlimited way. This is where the kamma of developing a mind state comes into play.

This can be seen clearly in the ways in which the Buddha advocates skillful types of verbal fabrication and mental fabrication to develop the sublime attitudes. Unlike breath meditation, where the steps are clearly laid out, the brahmavihāras are not taught in any systematic way in the early discourses. Instead, instructions for developing them are scattered among various passages. Still, those instructions can be sorted into two main types: verbal fabrications in the form of phrases to repeat to yourself, and mental fabrications in the form of images and perceptions to hold in mind to strengthen these attitudes and to maintain them as a form of mindfulness.

The Canon gives the following examples for how to phrase thoughts of goodwill:

“May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease!”— MN 41

“Happy, at rest,

may all beings be happy at heart.

Whatever beings there may be,

weak or strong, without exception,

long, large,

middling, short,

subtle, gross,

seen & unseen,

living near & far away,

born or seeking birth:

May all beings be happy at heart.

Let no one deceive another

or despise anyone anywhere,

or, through anger or perceptions of irritation,

wish for another to suffer.”— Sn 1:8

Notice how the first example ends with the thought, “May they look after themselves with ease.” This is a wish that all beings will be able to depend on themselves in their search for happiness. Similarly, the second example ends, not with the simple wish for beings to be happy, but with the wish that they’ll avoid developing states of mind that would lead them to behave unskillfully under the power of irritation or ill will. In other words, the ideal expression of universal goodwill for others is the hope that they’ll learn to develop universal goodwill and equanimity, too.

In this way, mature goodwill accords dignity to others, recognizing that they are the agents who will have to be responsible for their happiness. Your role is to wish them well in that pursuit, and to influence them, wherever appropriate, to choose their actions wisely. That’s how your goodwill can be most effective.

For some reason, the early discourses give no examples for how to phrase thoughts of compassion, empathetic joy, or equanimity. Later texts provide the following examples for each:

For compassion:

May all living beings be freed from all suffering.

For empathetic joy:

May all living beings not be deprived of the good fortune they have attained.

For equanimity:

All living beings are the owners of their actions, heir to their actions, born of their actions, related through their actions, and have their actions as their arbitrator. Whatever they do, for good or for evil, to that will they fall heir.

This last passage also appears in the early discourses as a reflection meant to give rise to a sense of saṁvega: the terror or dismay that arises when you reflect at the meaninglessness of all the many sufferings that life everywhere entails. No matter where you go in the universe, you’ll have to keep on creating kamma and experiencing its results. The sense of dismay that comes with this thought is what will motivate you to take on the noble eightfold path.

The dual role of this passage—for fostering both dismay and equanimity—underscores two points about limitless equanimity: 1) When skillful, it’s not a generalized indifference to everything. Instead, it’s meant to focus your efforts on areas that will pay off in terms of true happiness. 2) It’s not the goal. Instead, it’s a useful emotion to develop on the way to something much higher and more satisfying.

Of course, it’s possible to develop the brahmavihāras by expressing them in your own terms, in whatever way helps to weaken the negative emotions they’re supposed to counteract. The important point is that you always keep in mind how the brahmavihāras relate to the principle of kamma and, through kamma, to the four noble truths: Beings will be able to find true happiness only when they develop virtue, concentration, and discernment in line with the noble eightfold path.

The discourses offer some further reflections that expand on the basic sentiments of the brahmavihāras. For example, when you’re irritated by another person’s behavior, you can remind yourself that it’s nothing out of the ordinary when people do good things to other people you don’t like, or bad things to people you do like. After all, this is the human realm. What should you expect? (AN 10:80)

Also, when someone does something unskillful that you find displeasing, you can avoid giving in to anger and ill will for that person by focusing on the skillful things that that person has done in the past. This makes it easier to foster thoughts of goodwill and equanimity even in difficult cases. If you can’t think of anything skillful that that person has done, you should feel compassion for him: He’s creating a lot of bad kamma for himself. Conversely, if the person you find irritating is actually quite skillful in his or her actions, you should take joy in that person’s skillfulness.

What this means is that compassion is not only for people who are currently suffering, but also for those who are acting in ways that will lead to their future suffering. And in the same way, empathetic joy is not only for those who are already happy, but also for those who are acting in ways that will lead to future happiness.

The Buddha illustrates these last thoughts with analogies: You should perceive the thoroughly unskillful person as someone lying sick in a desert with no one to help him. Even if he’s a total stranger, you can’t help feeling compassion for him. In the same way, you should feel compassion for those who are totally unskillful in how they act, speak, and think, because they’re creating the causes for their own future suffering. As for the thoroughly skillful person, perceive him as being like a pool of cool, clean water in which you can cool your body and quench your thirst (AN 5:162).

These analogies illustrate the ways in which the Buddha uses not only verbal fabrications but also mental fabrications to strengthen the brahmavihāras.

Other analogies stress the importance of protecting the brahmavihāras in the face of difficulties. For instance, just as a mother with an only child would protect that child with her life, in the same way, you should protect your goodwill for all beings no matter how they behave, even if they’re trying to kill you (Sn 1:8). In one of his more graphic images, the Buddha says that even if bandits have overpowered you and are cutting you into pieces with a two-handled saw, you should develop thoughts of goodwill starting with them and then spreading those thoughts to the entire cosmos. Better that you die protecting your goodwill than that you die with ill will in your heart, for ill will could take you to a bad destination. As the Buddha himself says, it’s good to keep this image always in mind, so that when people mistreat you in ways that are less drastic, it’ll be easier to maintain goodwill for them (MN 21).

Other analogies that aid in strengthening the brahmavihāras emphasize the fact that as you make them vast, you also make them powerful and enduring, impervious to other people’s misbehavior. Perceive them as being like the Earth: A man can come and try to make the Earth be without earth by digging here and there, spitting here and there, urinating here and there, but he’ll never succeed, because the Earth is so much larger than his puny actions.

You can also perceive the brahmavihāras as being like the River Ganges. A person can try to use a lit torch to burn up the River Ganges, but the water isn’t flammable. It would simply put out the torch. In the same way, you can make your mind inflammable, so that when other people act out of anger, you don’t pick up the fire of their anger in response.

Or you can perceive the brahmavihāras as being like space: People can try to write words in space, but the words don’t stick, because space has no surface for them to stick to. In the same way, you can make your mind so vast and spacious that other people’s hurtful words have no place to adhere (MN 21).

The Buddha also recommends perceiving the brahmavihāras as being like wealth. He expands on this analogy with a comparison: Just as a wealthy person is hardly affected by a small fine, in the same way, if your mind has been made expansive by the brahmavihāras, you’re hardly affected by the results of past bad actions (AN 3:101).

You can expand further on the analogy yourself: The brahmavihāras are a form of wealth you can produce from within, simply from your own thoughts, and you can make your wealth as abundant as you like. It’s like having your own press for printing money. Unlike worldly currencies—where the more money is printed, the lower its value—the currency of the brahmavihāras keeps growing in value the more you produce it.

Contemplation of the Body

To counteract thoughts of passion and lust for the bodies of other people, or thoughts of pride around your own body, the Buddha recommends analyzing the body into its various parts. You can take the list given in the Canon as a starting point:

“Just as if a sack with openings at both ends were full of various kinds of grain—wheat, rice, mung beans, kidney beans, sesame seeds, husked rice—and a man with good eyesight, pouring it out, were to reflect, ‘This is wheat. This is rice. These are mung beans. These are kidney beans. These are sesame seeds. This is husked rice,’ in the same way, the monk reflects on this very body from the soles of the feet on up, from the crown of the head on down, surrounded by skin and full of various kinds of unclean things: ‘In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.’” — DN 22

Start by applying the analysis to your own body, and then to the bodies of others. Some people have complained that this promotes a negative body image, but it’s important to realize that, unlike the unhealthy negative body image that many people suffer from, this contemplation actually promotes a healthy negative body image. With an unhealthy negative body image, you see your body as unattractive whereas other people’s bodies are attractive. With a healthy negative body image, you realize that when we look at the parts of the body separately like this, we’re all equal in being unattractive. This contemplation can then free you from an unhealthy positive body image—in which you see the value of the body as lying in its external appearance—and allows you to develop a healthy positive body image, in which you value the body as a tool for developing the good qualities of the path.

If you want, you can include in your analysis other parts of the body—such as the eyes or the brain—that for some reason didn’t make it into the traditional list. Once you’ve memorized the list, visualize the parts one by one, asking yourself—with each part—where that part is located in your felt sense of the body. To help with your visualization, you can look at an anatomical chart, but remember that none of the parts in your body are cleanly separate and defined as they would be in such a chart. They’re mixed with all the fluids in the body. If visualizing a particular part has an especially strong effect in counteracting passion or lust, you can focus your primary attention on that part and, for the time being, put the rest of the list aside.

Ideally, this contemplation should give rise to an inner sense of lightness as you lose interest in passion and pride around the body. If, however, you find it giving rise to fear or unsettling emotions, drop it and go straight to the breath.

Contemplation of Inconstancy

To counteract the conceit “I am,” one of the terms of becoming, the Buddha recommends contemplating the inconstancy of fabrications. Focus on how—no matter how good or bad they may be—they keep changing on you in unreliable ways.

Here the word “conceit” doesn’t mean pride. It simply means the way you fashion your sense of yourself existing as a being. This conceit isn’t uprooted until the highest levels of the practice, but here the Buddha recommends calling it into question right from the very beginning of the meditation. He doesn’t explain why, but several practical reasons come to mind, all related to the fact that this contemplation helps to depersonalize events in the mind. That way, when something especially good or bad happens in the meditation, you don’t take it as reflecting on your worth as a person or a meditator. You remember to look at it simply as the result of the process of fabrication, governed by the principles of this/that conditionality, and you can turn your attention to fabricating skillful thoughts in the present moment in response to whatever has occurred.

For example, if things are going poorly, you can look into what you could possibly change in what you’re doing right now. If things seem to be going well, look into them to see if they really are going well, and how you’re responding to them. If they seem to be genuinely good, figure out how to maintain them and build on them.

If any psychic phenomena manifest, you can remember that they, too, are inconstant, and so you shouldn’t develop any pride around them. Remember that the Buddha said that a sign of no integrity is taking pride in whatever meditative attainments you may reach—and that pride spoils the attainment. The person of integrity realizes that even in cases like that, no sense of self should be fabricated around the attainment, and it should be observed and understood simply as a type of fabrication for the sake of dispassion.

And of course, if you can learn how not to identify with fabrications as they occur in your meditation, you’ve learned an important skill that will aid you in not identifying with the processes of aging, illness, and death as they come rolling in.

When you’ve internalized the lessons of these preliminary contemplations, you’re ready for breath meditation.

Mindfulness of Breathing

The Buddha taught mindfulness of breathing as a technique for developing right concentration, fostering tranquility and insight at the same time.

His instructions come in sixteen steps, divided into four sets of four, called tetrads. The tetrads correspond to the four frames of reference for establishing mindfulness: the body in and of itself, feelings in and of themselves, the mind in and of itself, and mental qualities in and of themselves. As we noted in Chapter Two, the “in and of itself” in each case means that you look at these phenomena on their own terms, and not in the terms of how they fit into your notions of the outside world.

Before focusing on the breath, it’s important to remember—from the Buddha’s analysis of the physical properties—that the in-and-out breath is part of the wind property of the body. This means that your focus should be, not on the tactile sensation of the air coming in and out the nose or the mouth, but on the flow of energy in the body as you breathe in, as you breathe out.

Seeing the breath in this way is very helpful for inducing concentration. As you may remember from Chapter Two, as you get the mind into right concentration, feelings of pleasure and refreshment develop, which you then work through the body in the same way that a bathman works water through a ball of “bathing dough.” Becoming sensitive to how the energy flows through the various parts of the body is very useful in allowing those feelings to spread and saturate your sense of the body, giving the mind a place to settle in with a strong sense of wanting to stay.

The tetrads of breath meditation are not practiced 1,2,3,4 in a row. Instead, you practice them in parallel. After all, when you’re focused on breath, feelings are right there, the mind is right there, mental qualities are right there. It’s simply a matter of emphasis as to which tetrad is most useful to focus on at any one time.

The first three tetrads form a unit, as you try to get the mind together with the breath with a feeling of pleasure. As they gather together more and more snugly, they develop into a quality called ekaggatā: having a single gathering place. This is a central feature of concentration.

The fourth tetrad, at least at the beginning of the practice, is concerned mainly with fending off any distractions that prevent the first three frames of reference from gathering into one.

The acts of calming and gathering the mind into one constitute the tranquility aspect of the concentration. The insight aspect comes in the fact that the instructions keep focusing on the role played by fabrication in getting the mind to settle down.

To see how this works, we can look at the tetrads one by one.

In the first tetrad, the four steps are: discerning when the breath is long; discerning when the breath is short; training yourself to breathe in and out sensitive to the whole body; and then training yourself to breathe in and out calming bodily fabrication, i.e., the in-and-out breath. All these steps fall under the body in and of itself as a frame of reference.

In the second tetrad, you train yourself to breathe in and out sensitive to rapture or refreshment, to breathe in and out sensitive to pleasure, to breathe in and out sensitive to mental fabrications—feelings and perceptions—and then to breathe in and out calming mental fabrications. These steps fall under feelings in and of themselves as a frame of reference.

In the third tetrad, you breathe in and out sensitive to the state of the mind, then you breathe in and out gladdening the mind, you breathe in and out concentrating the mind, and you breathe in and out releasing the mind. These steps fall under mind in and of itself as a frame of reference.

The steps in the fourth tetrad are these: First, as you breathe in and out, you focus on inconstancy, anicca, which would also include dukkha and anattā, stress and not-self. Then you breathe in and out focusing on dispassion, you breathe in and out focusing on cessation, and finally you breathe in and out focusing on letting go. These steps fall under mental qualities in and of themselves as a frame of reference.

Now let’s look at how these tetrads get put together in practice. In the first tetrad, the first two steps can include not only short and long breathing, but also fast and slow, deep and shallow, heavy and light, or in long, out short; in short, out long. We learn from the second tetrad that you will try to breathe in and out sensitive to refreshment and pleasure, which implies that in the first two steps of this first tetrad you explore variations in the breath to see which ways of breathing will be energizing—to provide the refreshment—and comfortable, to provide the pleasure. When those feelings have been activated, you expand your awareness to fill the whole body and let those feelings spread throughout the body as you’re aware of it. As we noted above, this is where it’s very helpful to think of breathing as a whole-body process, so that the pleasure and refreshment can spread along with the flow of breath energy.

In this way, you have body, feelings, and mind all occupying the same space: Awareness and a feeling of pleasure and refreshment fill your sense of the body. You energize the body in this way—this corresponds to the step of gladdening the mind in the third tetrad—and then you calm bodily fabrication. In other words, you let the breathing grow calm.

The Buddha uses this technical term bodily fabrication to stand for the in-and-out breath in order to call attention to the extent to which you’re intentionally shaping the breath and shaping your experience of the body through the way you breathe. This insight into the power of intention will stand you in good stead even as the body stops breathing at death. This is one of the reasons why breath meditation is such a good preparation for aging, illness, and dying.

The calming of bodily fabrication will take you through various levels of jhāna until you get to the fourth, where the in-and-out breath seems to grow still (AN 10:20). It’s important that you not try to stifle the breath to make it grow calm. Instead, focus attention on letting the different flows of energy through the body connect with one another so that they nourish and fill one another. That way, the felt sense that you have to bring more energy in from the outside will subside on its own.

That’s what happens as the mind settles down with its primary focus on the breath.

If you focus more on feelings as they relate to the breath, you first try to energize body and mind through developing feelings of rapture—the Pali term here, pīti, can also mean refreshment—and then pleasure. As you focus on these feelings, you’ll begin to see the perceptions, or mental labels, that surround them, and surround the body and mind as well. So as the next step, you notice the effect of these feelings and acts of perception on the mind, and then you try to still that effect by making the feelings and perceptions more peaceful.

Here again, the Buddha uses the word “fabrication”—mental fabrication—to call attention to the fact that the state of your mind is not just a given. You’re actually shaping it, and you can learn to shape it in a way that calms it down. With feelings, you first let go of the rapture to stay with a calmer sense of pleasure. Then the pleasure grows more refined until you arrive at equanimity. This takes you again through levels of jhāna to the fourth, which has equanimity as its primary feeling tone.

As for perceptions, you look for more and more peaceful ones. For example, with regard to perceptions around the breath, you can start with the perception that breath energy is coming into the body from outside and can run through the spine, internal organs, arms, legs, head, etc. This can be energizing as it relaxes and releases patterns of tension in the body. Then you notice that the energy actually originates in the body, so you hold that perception in mind. Try to see where in the body the energy of the in-breath seems to originate, and center your attention on that spot—or those spots—even as you maintain a sense of the whole body. Allow the energy to spread from its center(s) without obstruction. Hold in mind the perception that breath can flow through any blockage. This allows the breath to become more subtle.

Even more refined is the perception that every cell is breathing. Here you try to develop a diffuse attention that doesn’t highlight one part of the body at the expense of any others. This perception of every cell filled with breath allows the in-and-out breath to grow still without any fear that you’re going to be deprived of oxygen.

The instructions for the first two tetrads mention bodily and mental fabrication, but not verbal fabrication. Still, the instructions themselves are verbal fabrications: things you say to yourself as you breathe in and out. This means that with the first two tetrads, you’re becoming sensitized to all three types of fabrication.

When you focus on the mind in the third tetrad, you see a parallel pattern. First you grow sensitive to your state of mind to see if it’s out of balance and to detect what it needs. If it lacks energy, you gladden it: This can be done through the way you breathe or through the perceptions you develop around the breath. Or sometimes, when the mind has trouble settling down with the breath, you may switch to other themes, such as recollection of the Buddha or of your own acts of generosity, until the mind settles down. Then you can return your focus to the breath.

Once the mind is gladdened, you can concentrate it as its focus gets more solid and mental fabrications grow more refined, as mentioned in the second tetrad. With the last step in this tetrad, you release the mind from factors of lower jhānas, bringing it to the higher ones—and then, ideally, to a first glimpse of awakening.

That’s how the first three tetrads work together to create a sense of singleness (ekaggatā) in body and mind.

The fourth tetrad serves to protect this singleness from getting distracted and also to help in carrying out the last step in the third tetrad, releasing the mind step by step.

Most of the work in the fourth tetrad is done in the first two steps: focusing on inconstancy and focusing on dispassion. These two steps are a shorthand version of the five-step process for insight that we mentioned in the preceding chapter.

Suppose, for example, that a feeling of anger comes up in the course of your meditation. The five steps for getting yourself out of the anger would go something like this:

Origination: Look for the cause of the anger, not in events outside, but within the mind. If you’re angry at what someone in your family has done, you don’t look for the cause in that person’s actions. You look for the attitude in your own mind that perceives anger as an appropriate response.

Passing away: You look to see how anger goes away when the mind loses interest in the cause. You may lose interest because the mind has focused attention on something else, in which case it might be a while before the anger returns. Or the cause may simply lapse with a momentary lapse in your memory, in line with the inconstant nature of fabricated things, but then the mind is ready to pick it up again. When that happens, you want to look for—

The allure: Why do you find the anger attractive? What’s its appeal? Part of the mind may not like it, but there must be a part that does like it—or feels bound to a view that sees anger as necessary. Here’s where it’s useful to view the mind as a committee. As you look for the allure, it’s as if you separate yourself from the committee members who want to be angry, and identify yourself with members who wants to be free of the anger.

For this second group of members to see what attracts the first group of members to the anger, the mind has to be very, very still, for two reasons: 1) The part of the mind that likes anger or lust often tries to hide its real reasons, out of embarrassment, so it speaks in whispers and subliminal hints. To catch such subtle mental events, you have to be very quiet. 2) To make sure that you don’t start siding with the part that likes anger, you have to be coming from a sense of well-being, where you’re less hungry for unskillful pleasures. That way you’ll be more willing to admit how stupid the allure is, and to let it go.

You’ll also come to see that the allure is made up of the three kinds of fabrication, especially verbal and mental. The experience you’ve gained in breath meditation for seeing fabrications will help you here, as you see how the anger satisfies certain perceptions you hold about yourself, or the feeling of freedom that comes when you’re angry: Your sense of shame and compunction gets pushed aside, and you tell yourself that because someone else has engaged in outrageous behavior, you have the right to push aside any constraints on your own.

This last line of thinking is why, as one of the antidotes to anger, the Buddha has you remind yourself that the general norm of human speech includes both kind words and hurtful words, words spoken with good intentions and those spoken with bad intentions, truths and lies. The fact that you’ve been subjected to negative speech is nothing out of the ordinary, so it gives you no extraordinary rights to retaliate.

Once you’ve caught sight of the allure, you compare it with—

The drawbacks: Because the allure is made up largely of perceptions, you need to use new perceptions to counteract it. This is where you can bring in the perceptions of inconstancy, stress, and not-self to deal with your defilements. In the case of anger, you can also hold in mind perceptions of stupid things you’ve done under the power of anger in the past. Can you trust that this time around, your anger is so clear-sighted that it won’t make you do something you’ll later regret? Given that anger is so delusional, do you really want to label it as you or yours?

Because anger is often related to frustrated sensual desire, it might also be useful to think of the drawbacks of sensual thinking. The Buddha provides many similes—perceptions—to make the point that sensual desire gives you no real nourishment and makes you a slave to things that can be taken away from you at any time. We’ll discuss some of these similes in Chapter Six.

These perceptions and ways of thinking are value judgments, to remind you that there are better ways of finding happiness and satisfaction in life.

When the drawbacks really hit home, that’s when you find—

The escape in dispassion: You see clearly that the anger is not worth the effort that goes into fabricating it, so you can let it go. And in freeing it, you, too, are freed. This is the fifth step in this five-step process, and the second step in the fourth tetrad.

What follows is the third step in the fourth tetrad, cessation. When there’s dispassion, there’s no more passion to drive the fabrication of that particular case of anger, so it ceases.

Then you relinquish the whole issue. That’s the final step in putting it behind you.

Ultimately, as you get better and better at using these steps to fend off distractions, you can turn the same analysis on concentration and even insight itself. That’s when the mind can gain total release.

We noted above that the four tetrads fall into two groups based on their focus. On the one hand, the first three tetrads form a unit centered on keeping the mind properly focused on its meditation topic and increasing its powers of concentration. On the other hand, the fourth tetrad focuses on subduing any distractions that would disturb that focus. Both groups develop tranquility and insight in their own way. The first group induces insight by making you sensitive to the way you fabricate your experience, physically, verbally, and mentally. It induces tranquility by calming those fabrications to the point where they grow still in deeper states of concentration.

The second group induces insight by showing you how to pull out of a state of becoming—such as anger or lust—by looking at the processes that go into fabricating those states of becoming, viewed simply in terms of origination and passing away. The steps in this group then develop calm by helping you to evaluate those processes in a way that helps you arrive at a value judgment: They’re not worth fabricating. When the mind drops those fabrications, it settles into a more solid state of calm and peace.

That’s how the practice of right mindfulness and right concentration give rise both to tranquility and to insight. As you approach the skill of getting the mind to settle down, you do it in such a way that you become sensitive to how the mind fabricates sensory experience. You then can apply this insight not only to states of concentration, but also to any state of mind. This allows your powers of insight to see more sharply. As insight improves, it protects the mind from subtler and subtler disturbances and distractions, until it can eventually free the mind even from the fabrications of the path. That’s when the mind is totally released and experiences the deathless, which is what the practice is all about.

The skills developed through breath meditation are obviously useful for developing your concentration and bringing genuine peace to the mind in the here and now. But more importantly, they’re also very helpful when dealing with issues of aging, illness, and death.

The hands-on experience they give you in mastering the three types of fabrication will help you to fabricate good mental states as the body ages, grows ill, and dies.

The persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment you develop by following the four tetrads will give you the physical and mental strength you need to maintain your powers of focus so that you’re not distracted by the regrets and nostalgia that accompany aging.

The specific steps for dealing with feelings of pleasure, in the second tetrad, will also come to your aid when illness forces you to deal with feelings of pain.

And the ability to step out of states of becoming, as mastered in the fourth tetrad, will help you to escape from fear and other unskillful states of becoming at the approach of death.

Ultimately, they can free the mind from becoming altogether. This is the most necessary and useful skill of all.