Meditation: What & Why
Meditation is training for the mind, to help it develop the strengths and skills it needs to solve its problems. Just as there are many different remedies for the various illnesses of the body, there are many different types of meditation for the various problems of the mind.
The meditation technique taught in this book is a skill aimed at solving the mind’s most basic problem: the stress and suffering it brings on itself through its own thoughts and actions. Even though the mind wants happiness, it still manages to weigh itself down with mental pain. In fact, that pain comes from the mind’s misguided efforts to find happiness. Meditation helps to uncover the reasons for why the mind does this and, in uncovering them, helps you to cure them. In curing them, it opens you to the possibility of genuine happiness, a happiness you can rely on, a happiness that will never change or let you down.
That’s the good news of meditation: Genuine happiness is possible, and you can reach it through your own efforts. You don’t have to content yourself only with pleasures that will eventually leave you. You don’t have to resign yourself to the idea that temporary happiness is the best life has to offer. And you don’t have to pin your hopes for happiness on any person or power outside yourself. You can train the mind to access a totally reliable happiness, a happiness that causes no harm to you or to anyone else.
Not only is the goal of meditation good; the means for attaining that goal are good as well. They’re activities and mental qualities you can be proud to develop: things like honesty, integrity, compassion, mindfulness, and discernment. Because true happiness comes from within, it doesn’t require that you take anything from anyone else. Your true happiness doesn’t conflict with the true happiness of anyone else in the world. And when you find true happiness inside, you have more to share with others.
This is why the practice of meditation is an act of kindness for others as well as for yourself. When you solve the problem of stress and suffering, you, of course, are the person who will most directly benefit. But you aren’t the only one. This is because when you create stress and suffering for yourself, you weaken yourself. You place burdens not only on yourself but also on the people around you: both by having to depend on them for help and support, and also by damaging them with the foolish things you might do or say out of weakness and fear. At the same time, you’re hampered from helping them with their problems, for your hands are filled with your own. But if your mind can learn how to stop causing itself stress and suffering, you’re less of a burden on others and you’re in a better position to give them a helping hand.
So the practice of meditation teaches you to respect the things within you that are worthy of respect: your desire for a genuine happiness, totally reliable and totally harmless; and your ability to find that happiness through your own efforts.
To bring a total end to the mind’s self-inflicted stress and suffering requires a great deal of dedication, training, and skill. But the meditation technique taught in this book doesn’t give its benefits only to people who are ready to follow it all the way to the total cure of awakening. Even if you simply want help in managing pain or finding a little more peace and stability in your life, meditation has plenty to offer you. It can also strengthen the mind to deal with many of the problems of day-to-day life, because it develops qualities like mindfulness, alertness, concentration, and discernment that are useful in all activities, at home, at work, or wherever you are. These qualities are also helpful in dealing with some of the larger, more difficult issues of life. Addiction, trauma, loss, disappointment, illness, aging, and even death are a lot easier to handle when the mind has developed the skills fostered by meditation.
So even if you don’t make it all the way to total freedom from stress and suffering, meditation can help you to handle your sufferings more skillfully—in other words, with less harm to yourself and the people around you. This, in itself, is a worthwhile use of your time. If you then decide to pursue the meditation further, to see if it really can lead to total freedom, so much the better.
What's in this Book
The meditation technique described here is drawn from two sources. The first source is the Buddha’s set of instructions on how to use the breath in training the mind. These instructions are found in the Pali Canon, the oldest extant record of the Buddha’s teachings. As the Canon states, the Buddha found the breath to be a restful meditation topic—both for body and mind—as well as an ideal topic for developing mindfulness, concentration, and discernment. In fact, it was the topic he himself used on the path to his awakening. That’s why he recommended it to more people and taught it in more detail than any other topic of meditation.
The second source is a method of breath meditation developed in the last century by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo, a master of a branch of Buddhism known in Thailand as the Wilderness Tradition. Ajaan Lee’s method builds on the Buddha’s instructions, explaining in detail many of the points that the Buddha left in a condensed form. I trained in this technique for ten years under Ajaan Fuang Jotiko, one of Ajaan Lee’s students, so some of the insights here come from my training with Ajaan Fuang as well.
I’ve followed these sources in focusing on the breath as the main topic of meditation because it’s the safest of all meditation topics. The technique described here brings the body and mind to a balanced state of well-being. This in turn allows the mind to gain balanced insights into its own workings, so that it can see the ways in which it’s causing stress and suffering, and let them go effectively.
This technique is part of a comprehensive path of mind training that involves not only meditation but also the development of generosity and virtue. The basic approach in each part of this training is the same: to understand all your actions as part of a chain of causes and effects, so that you can direct the causes in a more positive direction. With every action in thought, word, or deed, you reflect on what you’re doing while you’re doing it. You look for the motivation leading to your actions, and the results your actions give rise to. As you reflect, you learn to question your actions in a specific way:
• Do they lead to stress and suffering, or to the end of stress and suffering?
• If they lead to stress, are they necessary?
• If not, why do them again?
• If they lead to the end of stress, how can you master them as skills?
Training in virtue and generosity asks these questions of your words and deeds. Training in meditation approaches all events in the mind as actions—whether they’re thoughts or emotions—and questions them in the same way. In other words, it forces you to look at your thoughts and emotions less in terms of their content, and more in terms of where they come from and where they lead.
This strategy of observing your actions and probing them with these questions is directly related to the problem it’s meant to solve: the stresses and sufferings caused by your actions. That’s why it underlies the training as a whole. Meditation simply allows you to observe your actions more carefully, and to uncover and abandon ever more subtle levels of stress caused by those actions. It also develops the mental qualities that strengthen your ability to act in skillful ways.
Although the meditation technique described here is part of a specifically Buddhist training, you don’t have to be Buddhist to follow it. It can help in overcoming problems that aren’t specific to Buddhists. After all, Buddhists aren’t the only people who cause themselves stress and suffering, and the qualities of mind developed through meditation don’t have a Buddhist copyright. Mindfulness, alertness, concentration, and discernment benefit everyone who develops them. All that’s asked is that you give these qualities a serious try.
The purpose of this book is to present the practice of meditation—along with the larger training of which it’s a part—in a way that’s easy to read and to put into practice. The book is divided into five parts, each part followed by a list of additional resources—books, articles, and audio files—that will help you explore the issues discussed in that part in more detail.
The first part of the book contains instructions in the basic steps of how to meditate. The second part gives advice on how to deal with some of the problems that may come up as you practice. The third part deals with issues that arise as you try to make meditation a part of your life as a whole. The fourth part deals with issues that arise as your meditation progresses to a higher level of skill. The fifth part deals with how to choose and relate to a meditation teacher who can give you the type of personalized training no book can possibly provide.
How to Read this Book
I’ve tried to cover most of the issues that a committed meditator will encounter in a self-directed practice. For this reason, if you’re brand new to meditation and are not yet ready to commit to a serious practice, you will find more material in this book than you’ll immediately need. Still, you can find plenty of useful guidance here if you read selectively. A good approach would be to read just what’s necessary to get started meditating and then put the book down to give it a try.
To get started:
1) Read the discussion of “Breath” in the following section, down to the heading, “Why the breath.”
2) Skip to the section titled, “Focusing on the Breath” in Part One. Read the six steps listed there until you can hold them in mind. Then find a comfortable place to sit and try following as many of the steps as you feel comfortable attempting. If the steps are too detailed for you, read the article, “A Guided Meditation,” listed at the end of Part One, or sit down and meditate while listening to any of the audio files with the same title available on www.dhammatalks.org.
3) If you encounter problems as you get started, return to Part One and also consult Part Two.
As for the rest of the book, you can save that till later, when you’re ready to raise the level of your commitment.
Even then, it will be wise to read the book selectively—especially Part Three. There the advice is again aimed at a fully committed meditator. Some of it may involve more commitment than you’re ready to make, so take whatever advice seems practical in the context of your current life and values, and leave the rest for other people—or for yourself at a later time.
Remember, nothing in the practice of meditation is ever forced on you. The only compulsion comes from an inner force: your own desire to be free from self-inflicted suffering and stress.
When you want to master a meditation technique, it’s good to know the premises underlying the technique. That way you have a clear idea of what you’re getting into. Knowing the premises also helps you understand how and why the technique is supposed to work. If you have doubts about the premises, you can try them on as working hypotheses, to see if they really do help in dealing with the problems of stress and suffering. Meditation doesn’t require that you swear allegiance to anything you can’t fully understand. But it does ask you to give its premises a serious try.
As your meditation progresses, you can apply the basic premises to areas that come up in your meditation that aren’t explained in the book. In this way, the meditation becomes less of a foreign technique, and more of your own path in exploring the mind and solving its problems as they arise.
Because breath meditation is a training in which the mind focuses on the breath, its basic premises focus on two topics: the workings of the mind, and the workings of the breath.
Mind. The word “mind” here covers not only the intellectual side of the mind, but also its emotional side together with its will to act. In other words, the word “mind” covers what we normally think of as “heart” as well.
The mind is not passive. Because it’s responsible for a body with many needs, it has to take an active approach to experience. Its actions shape its experience as it looks for food, both mental and physical, to keep itself and the body nourished. It’s driven by hungers both physical and mental. We’re all familiar with the need to feed physically. Mentally, the mind feeds both externally and internally on relationships and emotions. Externally, it hungers for such things as love, recognition, status, power, wealth, and praise. Internally, it feeds off its love for others and its own self-esteem, as well as the pleasures that come from emotions both healthy and not: honor, gratitude, greed, lust, and anger.
At any given moment, the mind is presented with a wide range of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas. From this range, it chooses which things to focus attention on and which to ignore in its search for food. These choices shape the world of its experience. This is why, if you and I walk through a store at the same time, for example, we will experience different stores to the extent that we’re looking for different things.
The mind’s search for nourishment is constant and never-ending, because its food—especially its mental food—is always threatening to run out. Whatever satisfaction it derives from its food is always short-lived. No sooner has the mind found a place to feed than it’s already looking for where to feed next. Should it stay here? Should it go somewhere else? These incessant questions of “What next?” “Where next?” drive its search for well-being. But because these questions are the questions of hunger, they themselves keep eating away at the mind. Driven by hunger to keep answering these questions, the mind often acts compulsively—sometimes willfully—out of ignorance, misunderstanding what causes unnecessary stress and what doesn’t. This causes it to create even more suffering and stress.
The purpose of meditation is to end this ignorance, and to root out the questions of hunger that keep driving it.
An important aspect of this ignorance is the mind’s blindness to its own inner workings in the present moment, for the present moment is where choices are made. Although the mind often acts under the force of habit, it doesn’t have to. It has the option of making new choices with every moment. The more clearly you see what’s happening in the present, the more likely you are to make skillful choices: ones that will lead to genuine happiness—and, with practice, will bring you closer and closer to total freedom from suffering and stress—now and into the future. Meditation focuses your attention on the present moment because the present moment is where you can watch the workings of the mind and direct them in a more skillful direction. The present is the only moment in time where you can act and bring about change.
The committee of the mind. One of the first things you learn about the mind as you get started in meditation is that it has many minds. This is because you have many different ideas about how to satisfy your hungers and find well-being, and many different desires based on those ideas. These ideas boil down to different notions about what constitutes happiness, where it can be found, and what you are as a person: your needs for particular kinds of pleasure, and your abilities to provide those pleasures. Each desire thus acts as a seed for a particular sense of who you are and the world you live in.
The Buddha had a technical term for this sense of self-identity in a particular world of experience: He called it becoming. Take note of this term and the concept behind it, for it’s central to understanding why you cause yourself stress and suffering and what’s involved in learning how to stop.
If the concept seems foreign to you, think of when you’re drifting off to sleep and an image of a place appears in the mind. You enter into the image, lose touch with the world outside, and that’s when you’ve entered the world of a dream. That world of a dream, plus your sense of having entered into it, is a form of becoming.
Once you become sensitive to this process, you’ll see that you engage in it even when you’re awake, and many times in the course of a day. To gain freedom from the stress and suffering it can cause, you’re going to have to examine the many becomings you create in your search for food—the selves spawned by your desires, and the worlds they inhabit—for only when you’ve examined these things thoroughly can you gain release from their limitations.
You’ll find that, in some cases, different desires share common ideas of what happiness is and who you are (such as your desires for establishing a safe and stable family). In others, their ideas conflict (as when your desires for your family conflict with your desires for immediate pleasure regardless of the consequences). Some of your desires relate to the same mental worlds; others to conflicting mental worlds; and still others to mental worlds totally divorced from one another. The same goes for the different senses of “you” inhabiting each of those worlds. Some of your “yous” are in harmony, others are incompatible, and still others are totally unrelated to one another.
So there are many different ideas of “you” in your mind, each with its own agenda. Each of these “yous” is a member of the committee of the mind. This is why the mind is less like a single mind and more like an unruly throng of people: lots of different voices, with lots of different opinions about what you should do.
Some members of the committee are open and honest about the assumptions underlying their central desires. Others are more obscure and devious. This is because each committee member is like a politician, with its own supporters and strategies for satisfying their desires. Some committee members are idealistic and honorable. Others are not. So the mind’s committee is less like a communion of saints planning a charity event, and more like a corrupt city council, with the balance of power constantly shifting between different factions, and many deals being made in back rooms.
One of the purposes of meditation is to bring these dealings out into the open, so that you can bring more order to the committee—so that your desires for happiness work less at cross purposes, and more in harmony as you realize that they don’t always have to be in conflict. Thinking of these desires as a committee also helps you realize that when the practice of meditation goes against some of your desires, it doesn’t go against all of your desires. You’re not being starved. You don’t have to identify with the desires being thwarted through meditation, because you have other, more skillful desires to identify with. The choice is yours. You can also use the more skillful members of the committee to train the less skillful ones so that they stop sabotaging your efforts to find a genuine happiness.
Always remember that genuine happiness is possible, and the mind can train itself to find that happiness. These are probably the most important premises underlying the practice of breath meditation. There are many dimensions to the mind, dimensions often obscured by the squabbling of the committee members and their fixation with fleeting forms of happiness. One of those dimensions is totally unconditioned. In other words, it’s not dependent on conditions at all. It’s not affected by space or time. It’s an experience of total, unalloyed freedom and happiness. This is because it’s free from hunger and from the need to feed.
But even though this dimension is unconditioned, it can be attained by changing the conditions in the mind: developing the skillful members of the committee so that your choices become more and more conducive to genuine happiness.
This is why the path of meditation is called a path: It’s like the path to a mountain. Even though the path doesn’t cause the mountain, and your walking on the path doesn’t cause the mountain, the act of walking along the path can take you to the mountain.
Or you can think of the unconditioned dimension as like the fresh water in salt water. The ordinary mind is like salt water, which makes you sick when you drink it. If you simply let the salt water sit still, the fresh water won’t separate out on its own. You have to make an effort to distill it. The act of distilling doesn’t create fresh water. It simply brings out the fresh water already there, providing you with all the nourishment you need to quench your thirst.
Training the mind. The training that gets you to the mountain and provides you with fresh water has three aspects: virtue, concentration, and discernment. Virtue is the skill with which you interact with other people and living beings at large, based on the intention to cause no harm to yourself or to others. This is a topic that we will consider in Part Three, in the discussion of issues that commonly arise when integrating meditation into daily life, but it’s important to note here why virtue is related to meditation. If you act in harmful ways, then when you sit down to meditate, the knowledge of that harm gets in the way of staying firmly in the present moment. If you react with regret over the harm you’ve done, you find it difficult to stay settled in the present moment with confidence. If you react with denial, you build inner walls in your awareness that create more opportunities for ignorance and make it harder to look directly at what’s really going on in the mind.
The best way to avoid these two reactions is to stick to the intention not to do anything harmful in the first place, and then make up your mind to follow that intention with more and more skill. If you’ve seen that you have acted unskillfully, acknowledge your mistake, recognize that regret won’t erase the mistake, and resolve not to repeat that mistake in the future. This is the most that can be asked of a human being living in time, where our actions aimed at shaping the future can be based only on knowledge of the past and present.
The second aspect of the training is concentration. Concentration is the skill of keeping the mind centered on a single object, such as the breath, with a sense of ease, refreshment, and equanimity—equanimity being the ability to watch things without falling under the sway of likes and dislikes.
Attaining concentration requires developing three qualities of mind:
• Alertness—the ability to know what’s happening in the body and mind while it’s happening.
• Ardency—the desire and effort to abandon any unskillful qualities that may arise in the mind, and to develop skillful qualities in their place.
• Mindfulness—the ability to keep something in mind. In the case of breath meditation, this means remembering to stay with the breath and to maintain the qualities of alertness and ardency with every in-and-out breath.
When these three qualities become strong, they can bring the mind to a state of strong concentration called jhana, or meditative absorption, which we will discuss in Part Four. Because jhana is based on desire—the desire to develop skillful qualities in the mind—it, too, is a form of becoming. But it’s a special form of becoming that allows you to see the processes of becoming in action. At the same time, the ease and refreshment provided by jhana are health food for the mind, enabling you to abandon many of the unskillful eating habits that would pull you off the path. Because the supply of mental food coming from jhana is steady, it takes some of the pressure off of your need to feed. This allows you to step back from the questions of hunger, and to look at them through the questions of discernment: seeing where the stress of feeding is unnecessary, and how you can master the skills to go beyond it. This is why jhana is central to the path of training.
The third aspect of the training is discernment. Discernment is the ability:
• to distinguish the skillful processes in the mind from the unskillful ones,
• to understand how to abandon what’s unskillful and to develop what’s skillful, and
• to know how to motivate yourself so that you can abandon unskillful processes and to develop skillful processes even when you’re not in the mood.
You learn these three abilities by listening to others—as when you read a book like this one—and by observing your own actions and asking the right questions about them. In the beginning, you step back from the questions of hunger—which demand an answer right now as to where and what to feed on next—and take stock of how you’ve been feeding:
In what ways do your feeding habits lead to stress?
In what ways is that stress unnecessary?
To what extent is it worth it—in other words, to what extent does the pleasure gained from feeding compensate for the stress?
In the beginning stages, as you develop virtue and try to master concentration, the questions of discernment are simply looking for better ways to feed. In other words, they’re refined versions of the questions of hunger. You come to realize that the pleasure you gained from carelessly acting in harmful ways or letting the mind wander where it will isn’t worth the stress it entails. You begin to see where the stress you thought was unavoidable isn’t really necessary. You have other, better ways of finding inner nourishment, feeding on the higher pleasures that virtue and concentration provide.
As your concentration develops, your discernment into the levels of stress in the mind gets more and more refined, so that your sense of what is and isn’t skillful gets more refined as well. As you keep applying the questions of discernment even to your practice of jhana, you begin to wonder if it might be possible to escape the stress that comes even with the most refined sort of feeding. What sort of skill would that involve?
This is where the questions of discernment are no longer just a refined version of the questions of hunger. They become noble questions in that they take you beyond the need to feed. They bring dignity to your search for happiness. They help you uncover the dimension where even feeding on jhana is no longer necessary. And when that dimension is finally uncovered, all stress comes to an end.
The questions of noble discernment—concerning unnecessary stress, the actions that cause it, and the actions that can help put an end to it—are related to one of the Buddha’s most famous teachings: the four noble truths. The fact of unnecessary stress is the first truth; the unskillful mental actions that cause it are the second; the fact that it can come to an end is the third; and the skillful actions that bring it to an end are the fourth.
These truths are noble for three reasons. One, they’re absolute. They’re true for everyone everywhere, so they’re not just a matter of personal opinion or your cultural background.
Two, they provide guidance for a noble path of practice. They teach you not to deny or run away from the stress you’re causing, but to acknowledge it and face it until you comprehend it. When you comprehend it, you can see the causes of that stress in your actions and abandon them. You develop the skillful actions that put an end to stress so that you can realize freedom from stress for yourself.
The third reason these truths are noble is that, when you use the questions underlying them to examine and question your actions, they lead ultimately to a noble attainment: a genuine happiness that puts an end to the need to feed, and so causes no harm to anyone at all.
Because discernment is aimed at bringing your actions to the highest level of skill, it grows directly out of the quality of ardency in your concentration. However, it also builds on alertness in seeing which actions lead to which results. And it informs mindfulness, so that you can remember the lessons you’ve learned from what you’ve observed and can apply them in the future.
In fact, all three aspects of the training—virtue, concentration, and discernment—help one another along. Virtue makes it easier to settle down in concentration and to be honest with yourself in discerning which members of the mind’s committee are skillful and which ones are not. Concentration provides the mind with a sense of refreshment that allows it to resist unskillful urges that would create lapses in virtue, and the stability it needs to discern clearly what’s actually going on inside. Discernment provides strategies for developing virtue, along with an understanding of the mind’s workings that allow it to settle down in ever-stronger states of concentration.
Virtue, concentration, and discernment, in turn, are all based on the most fundamental part of the training: the practice of generosity. In being generous with your belongings, your time, your energy, your knowledge, and your forgiveness, you create a space of freedom in the mind. Instead of being driven by your various appetites, you can step back and realize the joy that comes when you’re not a slave to hunger all the time. This realization provides your basic impetus to look for a happiness where you don’t need to feed at all. Seeing the good that comes from giving, you can learn to approach the practice of virtue and meditation not just with an eye to what you can get out of it, but also with an eye to what you can give to the practice. The training of the mind becomes a gift both for yourself and for the people around you.
So, all in all, the premises of breath meditation are based on four observations about the mind that the Buddha called noble truths:
1) The mind experiences stress and suffering.
2) The stress and suffering come from the way the mind shapes its experience through its actions driven by ignorance.
3) That ignorance can be ended, opening your awareness to an unconditioned dimension free of stress and suffering.
4) That dimension, even though it’s unconditioned, can be reached by training the mind in the skillful qualities of virtue, concentration, and discernment.
The purpose of breath meditation is to help with that training.
Breath. The word “breath” covers a wide range of energies in the body. Most prominently, there’s the energy of the in-and-out breath. We tend to think of this breath as the air coming in and out of the lungs, but this air wouldn’t move if it weren’t for an energy in the body activating the muscles that draw it in and allow it to go out. When you meditate on the in-and-out breath, you may start by paying attention to the movement of the air, but as your sensitivity develops, you become more focused on the energy.
In addition to the energy of the in-and-out breath, there are subtler flows of energy that spread through all parts of the body. These can be experienced as the mind grows more still. There are two types: moving energies; and still, steady energies. The moving energies are directly related to the energy of the in-and-out breath. For instance, there is the flow of energy in the nerves, as all the muscles involved in breathing, however subtly, are activated with each breath. This energy flow also allows you to have sensation in the different parts of the body and to move them at will. There is also the flow of energy that nourishes the heart with each breath, and then spreads from the heart as it pumps the blood. This can be felt with the movement of blood through the blood vessels and out to every pore of the skin.
As for the still, steady energies, these are centered in different spots in the body, such as the tip of the breastbone, the middle of the brain, the palms of the hands, or the soles of the feet. Once the in-and-out breath grows calm, these energies can be spread to fill the whole body with a sense of stillness and fullness that feels solid and secure.
To some people, these energies in the different parts of the body might seem mysterious—or even imaginary. But even if the concept of these energies seems foreign to you, the energies themselves are not. They form the way you directly experience the body from within. If they weren’t already there, you wouldn’t have any sense of where your own body is.
So when you try to acquaint yourself with these energies, there are three points to keep in mind:
1) You’re not concerned with your breath as it might be observed by a doctor or a machine outside you. You’re concerned with your breath as only you can know it: as part of your direct experience of having a body. If you have trouble thinking of these energies as “breath,” see if thinking of them as “breathing sensations” or “body sensations” helps—whatever enables you to get in touch with what’s actually there.
2) This is NOT a matter of trying to create sensations that don’t already exist. You’re simply making yourself more sensitive to sensations that are already there. When you’re told to let the breath energies flow into one another, ask yourself if the sensations you feel seem unconnected to one another. If they do, simply hold in mind the possibility that they can connect on their own. This is what it means to allow them to flow.
3) These energies are not air. They’re energy. If, while you’re allowing the breath energies to spread through the various parts of the body, you sense that you’re trying to force energy into those parts, stop and remind yourself: Energy doesn’t need to be forced. There’s plenty of space even in the most solid parts of the body for this energy to flow, so you don’t have to push it against any resistance. If there’s a sense of resistance to the energy, it’s coming from the way you visualize it. Try to visualize the energy in a way that can slip around and through everything with ease.
The best way to get in touch with these energies is to close your eyes, notice the sensations that tell you where the different parts of your body are, and then allow yourself to view those sensations as a type of energy. As you get more sensitive to those sensations and see how they interact with the energy of the in-and-out breath, it will seem more and more natural to regard them as types of breath energy. That allows you to get the most use out of them.
Why the breath. There are two reasons why the breath is chosen as a topic of meditation: It’s a good theme for developing the qualities needed for (1) concentration and (2) discernment.
1) All three qualities needed for concentration are easily developed by focusing on the breath:
Alertness: The only breath you can observe is the breath in the present. When you’re with the breath, your attention has to be in the present. Only in the present can you observe what’s going on in the body and mind as it’s actually happening.
The breath is also a meditation theme that goes along with you wherever you go. As long as you’re alive, you’ve got the breath right here to focus on. This means that you can meditate on the breath and develop alertness at any time and in any situation.
Mindfulness: Because the breath is so close to your present awareness, it’s easy to remember. If you forget to stay with the breath, the simple sensation of an in-breath can remind you to come back to it.
Ardency: The breath is one of the few processes in the body over which you can exert conscious control. An important part of breath meditation is learning how to make skillful use of this fact. You can learn which ways of breathing foster pleasant sensations in the body, and which ones foster unpleasant ones. You learn a sense of time and place: when and how to change the breath to make it more comfortable, and when to leave it alone. As you develop this knowledge, you can use it as an aid in developing skillful qualities of mind.
This sort of knowledge comes from experimenting with the breath and learning to observe the effects of different kinds of breathing on the body and mind. You can call this sort of experimentation working with the breath, for you’ve got an ardent purpose: the training of the mind. But you can also call it playing with the breath, for it requires that you use your imagination and ingenuity in thinking of different ways to breathe and to picture the breath energy to yourself. At the same time, it can be a lot of fun as you learn to explore and discover things about your body on your own.
There are many ways in which working and playing with the breath can help foster the quality of ardency in your meditation. For instance, when you learn how to breathe in ways that feel comfortable—to energize the body when you feel tired, or to relax the body when you feel tense—you make it easier to settle into the present moment and to stay there with a sense of well-being. You learn to view the meditation not as a chore, but as an opportunity to develop an immediate sense of well-being. This gives energy to your desire to stick with the meditation over the long term.
Playing with the breath also helps you stay in the present—and stick with the meditation over time—because it gives you something interesting and engaging to do that can show immediate benefits. This keeps you from getting bored with the meditation. As you see the good results arising from adjusting the breath, you become more motivated to explore the potentials of the breath in a wide variety of different situations: how to adjust the breath when you’re sick, how to adjust it when you feel physically or emotionally threatened, how to adjust it when you need to tap into reserves of energy to overcome feelings of exhaustion.
The pleasure and refreshment that can come from working and playing with the breath provide your ardency with a source of inner food. This inner food helps you deal with the obstreperous members of the committee of the mind who won’t back down unless they get immediate gratification. You learn that simply breathing in a particular way gives rise to an immediate sense of pleasure. You can relax patterns of tension in different parts of the body—the back of the hands, the feet, in your stomach or chest—that would otherwise trigger and feed unskillful urges. This alleviates the sense of inner hunger that can drive you to do things that you know aren’t skillful. So in addition to helping with your ardency, this way of working with the breath can help with your practice of virtue.
2) Because of the direct connection between ardency and discernment, the act of working and playing with the breath also helps develop discernment.
• The breath is the perfect place from which to watch the mind, for it’s the physical process most responsive to the mind’s own workings. As you grow more sensitive to the breath, you’ll come to see that subtle changes in the breath are often a sign of subtle changes in the mind. This can alert you to developments in the mind just as they’re starting to happen. And that can help you to see more quickly through the ignorance that can lead to stress and suffering.
• The sense of well-being fostered by working and playing with the breath gives you a solid foundation for observing stress and suffering. If you feel threatened by your suffering, you won’t have the patience and endurance needed to watch and comprehend it. As soon as you encounter it, you want to run away. But if you’re dwelling in a sense of well-being in the body and mind, you don’t feel so threatened by pain or suffering. That enables you to watch pain and suffering more steadily. You know that you have a safe place in your body where the breath feels comfortable, where you can focus your attention when the stress or suffering becomes too overwhelming. (For more on this topic, see the discussion of “Pain” in Part Three.) This gives you confidence to probe more deeply into the pain.
• The sense of pleasure that comes from concentration, as it gets more refined, allows you to see more subtle levels of stress in the mind. It’s like making yourself very quiet so that you can hear subtle sounds very far away.
• Being able to attain this inner level of pleasure puts the mind in a much better mood, so that it’s much more willing to accept the fact that it has been causing itself suffering. Training the mind to look honestly at its unskillful qualities is like talking to a person about his faults and shortcomings. If he’s hungry, tired, and grumpy, he won’t want to hear anything of what you have to say. You need to wait until he’s well-fed and well-rested. That’s when he’ll be more willing to admit his faults.
This is the main issue with the mind: It’s causing itself suffering through its own stupidity, its own lack of skill, and usually it doesn’t want to admit this fact to itself. So we use the sense of well-being that comes with playing and working with the breath to put the mind in a mood where it’s much more willing to admit its shortcomings and to do something about them.
• As you work and play with the breath, you also find that you have strategies for dealing with pain. Sometimes allowing breath energy to flow right through the pain can help lessen it. At the very least, the pain becomes less of a burden on the mind. This, too, allows you to face the pain with confidence. You’re less and less likely to feel overwhelmed by it.
• Finally, working with the breath in this way shows you the extent to which you shape your present experience—and how you can learn to shape it more skillfully. As I said above, the mind is primarily active in its approach to experience. Discernment, too, has to be active in understanding where the processes of the mind are skillful and unskillful in the shape they give to things. Discernment doesn’t come just from watching passively as things arise and pass away in your experience. It also has to see why they arise and why they pass away. To do this, it has to experiment—trying to make skillful qualities arise and unskillful qualities pass away—to see which causes are connected to which effects.
In particular, discernment comes from engaging with your present intentions, to see the extent to which those intentions play a role in shaping the way experiences arise and pass away.
The Buddhist term for this act of shaping is fabrication—in the sense of fabricating a strategy—and fabrication comes in three forms.
— First is bodily fabrication: the fabrication of your sense of the body through the in-and-out breath. The way you breathe influences your heart rate, the release of hormones into the blood stream, and the way you experience the body in general.
— Second, there’s verbal fabrication. This is the way you direct your thoughts to something and evaluate it. These two processes of directed thought and evaluation are the basis of your internal conversation. You bring up topics in the mind to think about, and then make comments on them.
— Third, there’s mental fabrication. This consists of perceptions and feelings. Perceptions are the labels you put on things: the words by which you name them, or the images the mind associates with them, sending itself subliminal messages about them. Feelings are the feeling-tones of pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain, which can be either physical or mental.
These three forms of fabrication shape your every experience. Take an example: Your boss has called you into her office for a meeting. As you go to the meeting, you call to mind some of the difficult exchanges you’ve had with her in the past. This is perception, a form of mental fabrication. You think about the possible issues that might be discussed, and you’re concerned that she’s going to reprimand you. This is verbal fabrication. As a result of your concerns, your breathing becomes constricted, causing your heart to speed up. This is bodily fabrication. All these forms of fabrication lead to feelings of mental and physical dis-ease, which are another form of mental fabrication. As you open the door to her office, these forms of fabrication already have you primed to overreact to even the slightest expressions of dislike or contempt in her words and bodily language—or to see such expressions even when they’re not there.
This is an example in which these three forms of fabrication have you primed to enter into the meeting in a way that will affect not only your experience of the meeting, but also your boss’s experience of you. Even before the meeting has started, you’re increasing the chances that it won’t go well.
But you could also use the power of fabrication to shift the meeting in another direction. Before opening the door, you stop to take a few deep, relaxing breaths (bodily fabrication plus feeling as a mental fabrication), and then call to mind the fact that your boss has been suffering from a lot of stress lately (perception as a mental fabrication). Putting yourself in her shoes, you think of ways in which to approach the meeting in a spirit of cooperation (verbal fabrication). You open the door to a different meeting.
These three forms of fabrication shape not only your external experiences. They’re also—and primarily—the processes shaping the different members of the mind’s committee, as well as the means by which the different committee members interact. Verbal fabrications are the most obvious way in which these members shout or whisper in one another’s ears—your many inner ears—but verbal fabrications are not the only way. For instance, if one of the members is advocating anger, it will also hijack your breathing, making it labored and uncomfortable. This leads you to believe that you’ve got to get the uncomfortable feeling associated with the anger out of your system by saying or doing something under its influence. Anger will also flash perceptions and images of danger and injustice through your mind, in the same way that devious television producers might flash subliminal messages on your television screen to make you hate and fear the people they don’t like.
It’s because we’re ignorant of the many levels on which these fabrications shape our actions that we suffer from stress. To end that suffering, we have to bring these fabrications into the light of our alertness and discernment.
Working and playing with the breath is an ideal way to do this, because when you work with the breath, you bring all three kinds of fabrication together. You’re adjusting and observing the breath; you’re thinking about the breath and evaluating the breath; you use the perceptions of the breath to stay with the breath, and you evaluate the feelings that arise when you work with the breath.
This allows you to be more sensitive to the fabrication of what’s going on in the present. You begin to see how the mind’s committee creates pleasure and pain not only while engaged in meditation, but all of the time. By consciously engaging in this fabrication with knowledge and discernment, you can change the balance of power in the mind. You reclaim your breath, your thoughts, your perceptions and feelings so that they can strengthen the skillful members of the committee, and aren’t under the power of the unskillful ones. You can actually create new, even more skillful members of the committee, who help you progress on the path.
In this way, you take one of the problems of the mind—its fragmentation into many different voices, many different selves—and turn it to your advantage. As you develop new skills in meditation, you train new members of the committee who can reason with and convert the more impatient members, showing them how to cooperate in finding a true happiness. As for the members that can’t be converted, they gradually lose their power because their promises of happiness are no match for the promises of the new members who actually deliver. So the blatantly unskillful members gradually disappear.
As your practice of concentration and discernment develops, you become more sensitive to the stresses and sufferings caused by fabrication even in activities that you used to regard as pleasant. This makes you become more ardent in looking for a way out. And when discernment sees that the way you fabricate stress and suffering in the present moment is unnecessary, you lose your taste for those fabrications and can let them stop. That’s how the mind becomes free.
In the beginning, you gain this freedom step by step, starting from the most blatant levels of fabrication. As the meditation develops, discernment frees you from progressively subtler levels until it can drop the subtlest levels that stand in the way of the unfabricated dimension: the unconditioned dimension that constitutes the ultimate happiness.
Your first taste of this dimension shows you that the most important premise underlying breath meditation is right: An unconditioned happiness is possible. Even though, at this stage, your taste of this dimension doesn’t totally put an end to suffering and stress, it does confirm that you’re on the right path. You’ll be able to reach it for sure. And at that point, you’ll have no more need for books of this sort.
Because the breath is so helpful in developing all three aspects of the path to unconditioned happiness—virtue, concentration, and discernment—it’s an ideal theme for training the mind to experience that happiness for itself.
(In every case where no author is listed, the writings are mine.)
It’s often nice to have a few books of short Dhamma passages that you can open at random to get a Buddhist perspective on things. Some good examples: Ajaan Fuang Jotiko – Awareness Itself; Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo – The Skill of Release; Ajaan Dune Atulo – Gifts He Left Behind; Ajahn Chah Subhaddo – In Simple Terms; and the section, “Pure & Simple” in Upasika Kee Nanayon – An Unentangled Knowing