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With Each and Every Breath II: FOCUSING ON THE BREATH
 
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With Each and Every Breath
A Guide to Meditation
by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

II: FOCUSING ON THE BREATH

Now you’re ready to focus on the breath. There are six steps:

1. Find a comfortable way of breathing.

Start by taking a couple of deep, long in-and-out breaths. This helps to energize the body for meditation and makes the breath easier to observe. Deep breathing at the beginning of meditation is also a good habit to maintain even as you become more skilled in the practice, for it helps to counteract any tendency to suppress the breath as you try to make the mind still.

Notice where you feel the sensations of breathing in the body: the sensations that tell you, “Now you’re taking an in-breath. Now you’re taking an out-breath.” Notice if they’re comfortable. If they are, keep breathing in that way. If they’re not, adjust the breath so that it’s more comfortable. You can do this in any of three ways:

a. As you continue breathing deep and long, notice where a sense of strain develops in the body toward the end of the in-breath, or where there’s a sense of squeezing the breath out toward the end of the out-breath. Ask yourself if you can relax those sensations with the next breath as you maintain the same breathing rhythm. In other words, can you maintain a sense of relaxation in the areas that have been feeling strained toward the end of the in-breath? Can you breathe out at the same rate without squeezing it out? If you can, keep up that rhythm of breathing.

b. Try changing the rhythm and texture of the breath. Experiment with different ways of breathing to see how they feel. You can make the breath shorter or longer. You can try short in and long out, or long in and short out. You can try faster breathing or slower breathing. Deeper or more shallow. Heavier or lighter. Broader or more narrow. When you find a rhythm that feels good, stick with it as long as it feels good. If, after a while, it doesn’t feel good, you can adjust the breath again.

c. Simply pose the question in the mind each time you breathe in: “What kind of breath would feel especially gratifying right now?” See how your body responds.

2. Stay with each in-and-out breath.

If your attention slips off to something else, bring it right back to the breath. If it wanders off again, bring it back again. If it wanders off 100 times, bring it back 100 times. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t get upset with yourself. Each time you come back, reward yourself with an especially gratifying breath. That way the mind will develop positive associations with the breath. You’ll find it easier to stay with the breath, and to return to it quickly the next time you slip off.

If you get discouraged thinking about how many breaths you’re going to have to stay focused on, tell yourself with each breath: “Just this one in-breath; just this one out breath.” The task of staying with the breath will then seem less overwhelming, and your thoughts will be more precisely focused on the present.

If you want, you can use a meditation word to help fasten your attention to the breath. Buddho (“awake”) is a popular one. Think bud with the in-breath, and dho with the out. Or you can simply think in and out. Keep the meditation word as long as the breath. When you find that you can stay easily with the breath, drop the meditation word so that you can observe the breath more clearly.

3. When the blatant sensations of breathing are comfortable, expand your awareness to different parts of the body to observe more subtle breathing sensations.

You can do this section-by-section, in any order you like, but in the beginning try to be systematic so that you cover the entire body. Later, when your sensitivity to the body becomes more automatic, you will quickly sense which parts of the body need most attention, and you can direct your attention immediately there. But when you’re starting out, it’s good to have a clear and comprehensive roadmap in mind.

One roadmap is this:

Start with the area around the navel. Locate that part of the body in your awareness and watch it for a while as you breathe in and breathe out. See what rhythm and texture of breathing feels best right there. If you notice any sense of tension or tightness in that part of the body, allow it to relax, so that no tension builds up as you breathe in, and you don’t hold on to any tension as you breathe out. If you want, you can think of breath energy entering the body right there at the navel, so that you don’t create a sense of strain by trying to pull it there from somewhere else. Have a sense that the breath energy is coming in and out freely and easily. There’s nothing obstructing it.
When that part of the body feels refreshed, move your attention to different parts of the front of your torso and repeat the same steps. Survey the parts in this order: the lower right-hand corner of the abdomen, the lower left-hand corner of the abdomen; the solar plexus (the spot right in front of your stomach), the right flank (the side of the rib cage), the left flank; the middle of the chest, the spot to the right of that where the chest and the shoulder meet, the same spot on the left. In other words, you move up the front of the torso, focusing first on the center, then on the right, then on the left. Then you move further up the torso and repeat the same pattern.
You may find, as you focus on the different parts of the body, that the rhythm and texture of the breathing will change to suit that part of the body. This is perfectly fine.
Then move your attention to the base of the throat and follow the same steps as for the navel.
Then bring your attention to the middle of the head. As you breathe in and out, think of the breath energy coming in and out not only through the nose, but also through the eyes, the ears, the back of the neck, the top of the head. Think of the energy gently working through any patterns of tension you may feel in the head—in the jaws, around the eyes, in the forehead—and very gently dissolving those patterns of tension away. When the patterns of tension feel relaxed, you can think of the breath energy going deep into the area around the pineal gland, right behind the eyes, and allowing that part of the body to absorb all the incoming breath energy it needs. But be careful not to put too much pressure on the head, because the nerves of the head tend to be overworked. Apply just enough pressure to maintain your focus comfortably.
Now move your attention to the back of the neck, right at the base of the skull. As you breathe in, think of the breath energy entering the body at that spot and then going down the shoulders, down the arms, out to the tips of the fingers. As you breathe out, think of the energy radiating out from those parts of the body into the air. As you become more sensitive to these parts of the body, notice which side is carrying more tension: the left shoulder or the right shoulder, the left upper arm or the right upper arm, and so on. Whichever side is holding more tension, consciously try to relax that side and keep it relaxed all the way through the in-breath, all the way through the out breath. If you tend to hold a lot of tension in your hands, spend a fair amount of time releasing the tension along the back of each hand and in each finger.
Now, keeping your focus at the back of the neck, breathe in with the thought that the energy is going down both sides of the spine down to the tailbone. Repeat the same steps as for the shoulders and arms. In other words, when you breathe out, think of the breath energy radiating out from the back into the air. As you become more sensitive to the back, notice which side is carrying more tension and consciously try to keep that side relaxed all the way through the in-breath, all the way through the out-breath
Now move your attention down to the tailbone. As you breathe in, think of the breath energy entering the body there, going down past the hips, down the legs, and out to the tips of the toes. Repeat the same steps as for the shoulders and arms. If necessary, you can spend a fair amount of time releasing the tension in your feet and toes.
That completes one cycle in the survey of the body. If you like, you can go through the body again, beginning at the navel, to see if you can clear up any patterns of tension you may have missed the first time around. You can keep this up as many times as you like until you feel ready to settle down.
The amount of time you spend with each section of the body is up to you. In the beginning, as a general rule of thumb, you might want to spend just a few minutes with each point or section, giving more time to the points on the central meridian of the body than to the points on the side, and even more time to the shoulders, back, and legs. As you become more familiar with the energy patterns in your own body, you can adjust the time spent on each point as you see fit. If one point or section seems to respond especially well to your attention, releasing tension in a refreshing way, stick with that point as long as it responds. If a point or section doesn’t respond after several minutes of attention—or if you find that tension increases when you focus on it—drop it for the time being and move on to the next point.

If your time for meditation is limited, you might want to limit your survey to the center points on the front of the torso—navel, solar plexus, middle of the chest—and then to the base of the throat and the middle of the head.

If focusing in the head gives you a headache, avoid focusing there until you learn how to maintain focus with a minimum of pressure.

4. Choose a spot to settle down.

You can choose any spot you like where the breath energy is clear and you find it easy to stay focused. A few of the traditional spots are:

the tip of the nose,
the point between the eyebrows,
the middle of the forehead,
the top of the head,
the middle of the head,
the palate,
the back of the neck at the base of the skull,
the base of the throat,
the breastbone (the tip of the sternum),
the navel (or a point just above it),
the base of the spine.
Over the course of several meditations, you can experiment with different spots to see which ones give the best results. You may also find that other spots not mentioned on this list are also congenial. Or you may find that keeping track of two spots at once—say, the middle of the head and the base of the spine—helps to keep your attention fixed more firmly than focusing just on one spot. Ultimately, you want to be able to keep your attention focused on any spot in the body. This ability will be useful when you’re suffering from a disease or injury, as you can sometimes speed healing by focusing on the breath energy at particular spots in the body.

5. Spread your awareness from that spot so that it fills the body through every in-and­out breath.

Think of a lit candle in the middle of an otherwise dark room. The flame of the candle is in one spot, but its light fills the entire room. You want your awareness to be centered but broad in just the same way. Your sense of awareness may have a tendency to shrink— especially as you breathe out—so remind yourself with every breath: “whole body breathing in, whole body breathing out.” This full-body awareness helps to keep you from getting drowsy when the breath gets comfortable, and from losing focus as the breath gets more subtle.

6. Think of the breath energy coursing through the whole body with every in-and-out breath.

Let the breath find whatever rhythm or texture feels best. Think of all the breath energies connecting with one another and flowing in harmony. The more fully they’re connected, the more effortless your breathing will be. If you have a sense that the breath channels are open during the in-breath but close during the out-breath, adjust your perception to keep them open throughout the breathing cycle.

Then simply maintain that sense of whole-body breathing throughout the remainder of your meditation. If the breath grows still, don’t worry. The body will breathe if it needs to. When the mind is still, the brain uses less oxygen, so the oxygen that the body receives passively—through the lungs and perhaps through the relaxed pores (anatomists have differing opinions on this)—will be enough to serve its needs. At the same time, however, don’t force the breath to stop. Let it follow its own rhythm. Your duty is simply to maintain a broad, centered awareness and to allow the breath to flow freely throughout the body.

If you find that you lose focus when you spread your awareness through the body, you can return to the survey of the different parts, try a meditation word, or simply stay focused on one point until you feel ready to try full-body awareness again.

Variations. As you get more familiar with the meditation and with the problems you encounter while doing it, you can adjust these steps as you see fit. In fact, gaining a sense of how to adjust things—to learn from your own experimentation—is an important principle in using breath meditation to develop discernment.

For example, you may want to change the order of the steps. You might find that you can more easily find a comfortable way of breathing (step one) if you first develop a full-body awareness (step five). Or you might find that you need to force the mind to settle down firmly in a single spot for a while (step four) before you can explore the breath sensations in the rest of the body (step three). You might find that after you’ve chosen one spot to stay settled in (step four), you want to focus on two spots at once for a while before you move on to spreading your awareness to the whole body (step five).

Another way of adjusting the steps is to vary what you do within a particular step. Step three—exploring the subtle breath sensations in the body—allows for an especially wide range of variation. You might want to start your survey at the back of the neck, thinking of the breath energy entering the body there from the back and then going down through the spine, and ultimately out the legs to the tips of the toes and the spaces between the toes. Then think of the breath coming in the back of the neck going down through the shoulders and out through the arms to the fingers and the spaces between the fingers. Then move your attention to the breath sensations in the front of the torso.

Or you might want to go through the body very quickly at first, and then repeat the survey more methodically.

Or you might visualize changing the direction of how the breath sensations flow through the body. For instance, instead of thinking of the breath flowing down the spine and out the feet, you might think of it coming up from the feet, going up the spine, and then either going out the top of the head or over the top of the head and down through your throat and out the area in front of the heart.

Or you might sense that there are breath energies surrounding the body like a cocoon. When this happens, try to get a sense of how to tell when these energies are in harmony, when they’re in conflict, and how to bring them from conflict to harmony in a way that nourishes the energies inside the body. One way of doing this is to visualize these energies as all flowing in one direction—say, from the head to the toes—and then, after a while, visualizing them all flowing in the other direction. Notice which direction feels more comfortable, and then stick with that. If the cocoon of breath energies feels comfortable, you can experiment with ways of using that comfortable energy to heal parts of the body that feel tight or in pain.

Another way of adjusting the steps, on certain occasions, is to focus on only a few of the steps. There are two main situations in which you might want to try this:

When you’re first getting started and you find that the more broadly focused steps—3, 5, and 6—are hard to follow without getting distracted, you can skip them for the time being and focus first on the more narrowly focused steps—1, 2, and 4—until you can stay with them consistently. Only then should you expand your practice to include the other three. However many sessions of meditation this may take doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re able to maintain a comfortable center. That will help you add the remaining steps with a greater sense of stability.

When you’re skilled at combining all six steps and you want to gain practice in bringing the mind to stillness as quickly as possible, you can focus on steps 4, 5, and 6. In other words, once you’ve learned from experience where your mind feels most comfortably centered, try settling down quickly in that spot, allow it to get comfortable, and then see how quickly you can spread your awareness along with the comfortable breath to fill the entire body and then keep it filled. This is a useful skill to develop, not only in the context of formal meditation, but also in daily life. This point will be discussed further in Part Three.

These are just a few of the ways you might want to experiment. In general, though, it’s usually best to begin with the six steps, in order, so as to have a clear roadmap in mind each time you sit down to meditate. That way, when you’ve wandered off, you’ll find it easier to pick up where you left off. And if a particular stage in the practice goes especially well, you’ll be better able to remember it because you know where it is on the map.


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