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With Each and Every Breath I: GETTING READY TO MEDITATE
 
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With Each and Every Breath
A Guide to Meditation
by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Basic Instructions

I: GETTING READY TO MEDITATE

Meditation is something you can do in any situation and in any posture. However, some situations are more conducive than others to helping the mind settle down. Especially when you’re just getting started, it’s wise to look for situations where there’s a minimum of disturbance, both physical and mental.

Also, some postures are more conducive than others to helping the mind settle down. The standard posture for meditation is sitting, and it’s wise to learn how to sit in a way that allows you to meditate for long periods of time without moving and without at the same time causing undue pain or harm for the body. Other standard postures for meditating are walking, standing, and lying down. We’ll focus here on sitting, and save the other postures for section IV of Part One, below.

Before you sit to meditate on the breath, it’s wise to look at three things in this order: your physical situation, your posture, and your mental situation—in other words, the state of your mind.

YOUR PHYSICAL SITUATION
Where to meditate. Choose a quiet spot, in your home or outside. For a daily meditation routine, it’s good to choose a spot that you don’t normally use for other purposes. Tell yourself that the only thing you’re going to do when you sit in that spot is to meditate. You’ll begin to develop quiet associations with that spot each time you sit there. It becomes your special place to settle down and be still. To make it even more calming, try to keep the area around it neat and clean.

When to meditate. Choose a good time to meditate. Early in the morning, right after you’ve woken up and washed your face, is often best, for your body is rested and your mind hasn’t yet become cluttered with issues from the day. Another good time is in the evening, after you’ve rested a bit from your daily work. Right before you go to sleep is not the best time to meditate, for the mind will keep telling itself, “As soon as this is over, I’m going to bed.” You’ll start associating meditation with sleep, and, as the Thais say, your head will start looking for the pillow as soon as you close your eyes.

If you have trouble sleeping, then by all means meditate when you’re lying in bed, for meditation is a useful substitute for sleep. Often it can be more refreshing than sleep, for it can dissolve bodily and mental tensions better than sleeping can. It can also calm you down enough so that worries don’t sap your energy or keep you awake. But make sure that you also set aside another time of the day to meditate too, so that you don’t always associate meditation with sleep. You want to develop it as an exercise in staying alert.

Also, it’s generally not wise to schedule your regular meditation for right after a large meal. Your body will be directing the blood down to your digestive system, and that will tend to make you drowsy.

Minimizing disturbance. If you’re living with other people, tell them you don’t want to be disturbed while you’re meditating unless there’s a serious emergency. You’re taking some time out to be an easier person to live with. If you’re the only adult at home, and you’re living with children for whom everything is a serious emergency, choose a time when the children are asleep. If you’re living with older children, explain to them that you’ll be meditating for x amount of time and you need privacy during that time. If they interrupt you with a non-emergency, quietly tell them that you’re still meditating and that you’ll talk with them when you’re done. If they want to meditate with you, welcome them, but establish a few rules for their behavior so that they don’t disturb your time to be quiet.

Turn off your cell phone and any other devices that might interrupt your meditation. Use a watch or a clock with a timer to time your meditation. In the beginning, twenty minutes is usually about right, for it gives you enough time to settle down a bit, but not so much time that you start getting bored or frustrated if things aren’t going well. As you gain some skill in the meditation, you can gradually increase your meditation time by five or ten-minute increments.

Once you’ve set your timer, put it behind you or off to your side so that you can’t see it while you’re in your meditation position. That will help you to avoid the temptation to peek at the time and to turn your meditation into an exercise in clock-watching.

If you have a dog in your home, put it in another room and close the door. If it starts to whine and scratch at the door, let it into the room where you’re sitting, but be strict with yourself in being unresponsive if it comes to you for attention. Most dogs, after a few days, will get the message that when you’re sitting there with your eyes closed, you’re not going to respond. The dog may well lie down and rest along with you. But if it doesn’t get the message, put it back in the other room.

Cats are usually less of a problem in this regard, but if you do have an attention-starved cat, treat it as you would a dog.

YOUR POSTURE
An important part of training the mind lies in training the body to stay still so that you can focus on the movements of the mind without being disturbed by the movement of the body. If you’re not used to sitting still for long periods of time, the act of training the body will have to go along with training the mind.

If you’re new to meditation, it’s wise not to focus too much on your posture for the first several sessions. That way you can give your full attention to training the mind, saving the process of training the body for when you’ve had some success in focusing on the breath.

So for beginners, simply sit in a comfortable way, spread thoughts of goodwill—a wish for true happiness—to yourself and others, and then follow the steps in the section, “Focusing on the Breath,” below. If your posture gets uncomfortable, you may shift slightly to relieve the discomfort, but try to keep your attention focused on the breath while you shift position.

If, after a while, you feel ready to focus on your posture, here are some things you can try:

Sitting on the floor. An ideal posture is to sit cross-legged on the floor, with at most a folded blanket under you—placed just under your sitting bones or under your folded legs as well.

This is a classic meditation posture for at least two good reasons: One, it’s stable. You’re not likely to fall over even when, in the more advanced levels of meditation, your sense of the body gets replaced by a sense of space or pure knowing.

Two, when you’re accustomed to this posture, you can sit and meditate anywhere. You can go out into the woods, place a small mat on the ground, sit down, and there you are. You don’t have to carry a lot of cushions or other paraphernalia around with you.

A standard version of the posture is this:

Sit on the floor or your folded blanket with your left leg folded in front of you, and your right leg folded on top of your left leg. Place your hands on your lap, palms up, with your right hand on top of the left. (To prevent this posture from causing an imbalance in your spine, you can alternate sides by sometimes placing your left leg on top of your right leg, and your left hand on top of your right hand.)
Bring your hands close to your stomach. This will help keep your back straight and minimize the tendency to hunch over.
Sit straight, look straight in front of you, and close your eyes. If closing your eyes makes you feel uncomfortable or induces feelings of sleepiness, you can leave them half open—although if you do, don’t look straight ahead. Lower your gaze to a spot on the floor about three feet in front of you. Keep your focus soft. Be careful not to let it harden into a stare.
Notice if your body feels like it’s leaning to the left or the right. If it is, relax the muscles that are pulling it in that direction, so that you bring your spine into a reasonably straight alignment.
Pull your shoulders back slightly and then down, to create a slight arch in your middle and lower back. Pull your stomach in a bit, so that the back muscles aren’t doing all the work in keeping you erect.
Relax into this posture. In other words, see how many muscles you can relax in your torso, hips, etc., and still stay erect. This step is important, for it helps you to stay with the posture with a minimum of strain.
This is called the half-lotus position, because only one leg is on top of the other. In the full-lotus, once your right leg is on top of your left, you bring your left leg on top of your right. This is an extremely stable position if you can manage it, but don’t try it until you’re adept at the half-lotus.

If you’re not accustomed to the half-lotus, you may find in the beginning that your legs will quickly fall asleep. That’s because blood that normally flows in the main arteries is being pushed into the small capillaries. This can be uncomfortable at first, but don’t worry. You’re not harming the body, for the body can adapt. If the small capillaries carry an increased load of blood frequently enough, they will enlarge, and your circulatory system will be rerouted to accommodate your new posture.

The trick with all postures is to break yourself in gradually. Pushing yourself to sit long hours right from the start is not wise, for you can damage your knees. If you know any good yoga teachers, ask them to recommend some yoga poses that will help limber up your legs and hips. Do those poses before you meditate to speed up the body’s adaptation to the sitting posture.

A somewhat gentler way of sitting cross-legged than the half-lotus is the tailor position: Fold your legs, but don’t put the right leg on top of the left. Place it on the floor in front of the left, so that your right knee makes a gentler angle, and the left leg isn’t pressed down by the right. This helps relieve some of the pressure on both legs.

Benches & chairs. If you have a knee or hip injury that makes it difficult to sit cross- legged, you can try sitting on a meditation bench, to see if that’s easier. Kneel with your shins on the ground, place the bench over your calves, and then sit back on the bench. Some benches are designed to force you to sit at a certain angle. Others can rock back and forth, allowing you to choose your own angle or to change it at will. Some people like this; others find it unstable. It’s a personal choice.

If none of these three alternatives—sitting right on the floor, sitting on the floor on top of a folded blanket, or sitting on a meditation bench—works for you, there are many styles of meditation cushions available for purchase. They’re usually a waste of money, though, because an extra folded blanket or firm pillow can usually serve the same purpose. Pillows and blankets may not look as serious as a dedicated meditation cushion, but there’s no need to pay a lot of extra money just for looks. A good lesson in becoming a meditator is learning how to improvise with what you’ve got.

Alternatively, you can try sitting on a chair. Choose a chair with a seat just high enough off the ground so that your feet can rest flat on the ground and your knees can bend at a ninety-degree angle. A wooden or other firm chair, with or without a folded blanket or thin cushion on the seat, is ideal. Too thick a cushion is unwise, for it leads you to hunch over.

When you’ve got a good chair, sit slightly away from the back, so that your back supports itself. Then follow the same steps as with the half-lotus: Place your hands on your lap, palms up, one on top of the other. Bring your hands close to your stomach. Sit straight, look straight in front of you, and close your eyes. Pull your shoulders back slightly and then down, to create a nice arch in your middle and lower back. Pull your stomach in a bit. Relax into this posture. In other words, see how many muscles you can relax and still maintain it.

If you’re too ill or disabled to sit in any of these postures, choose a posture that feels comfortable for your particular condition.

With any posture, if you discover that you have a tendency over time to slump your back, it may be because of the way you breathe out. Pay a little extra attention to your out-breaths, reminding yourself to keep your back straight each time you breathe out. Keep this up until you’ve established it as a habit.

And whatever your posture, remember that you don’t have to make a vow at the beginning not to move. If you find yourself in extreme pain, wait a minute so that you don’t become a slave to every passing pain, and then very consciously—without thinking of anything else—shift your posture to something more comfortable. Then resume your meditation.

THE STATE OF YOUR MIND
Once your body is in position, take a couple of deep in-and-out breaths, and then look at the state of your mind. Is it staying with the breath, or is a persistent mood getting in the way? If you’re staying with the breath, keep going. If some of the members of your mind’s committee are less cooperative, bring in some other members to counteract them.

The important point is that you don’t let a mood dictate whether you’re going to meditate or not. Remember, a bad meditation session is better than no meditation session at all. At the very least, you learn to resist the unskillful members of your mind to at least some extent. And only through resisting them can you come to understand them—in the same way that building a dam across a river is a good way to learn how strong the river’s currents are.

If some of your committee members are getting in the way, there are some standard contemplations to counteract them. The purpose of these contemplations is to cut through the mind’s usual narratives and to create some new committee members with new narratives that will help put things into perspective so that you’re more willing to stay with the breath.

The sublime attitudes. The most popular contemplation is to develop attitudes of goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity for all beings, without limit. These attitudes—called brahmaviharas, or sublime attitudes—are so useful that many people make a standard practice of developing them for a few minutes at the beginning of every meditation session regardless of whether there’s a conscious need for them. This helps to clear up any buried resentments from your daily interactions with other people, and reminds you of why you’re meditating: You want to find a happiness that’s secure—which means that it has to be harmless. Meditation is one of the few ways of finding happiness that harms no one at all. At the same time, you’re creating a new narrative for your life: Instead of being a person weighed down by resentments, you show yourself that you can rise above difficult situations and develop a magnanimous heart.

The four sublime attitudes are actually contained in two: goodwill and equanimity. Goodwill is a wish for true happiness, both for yourself and for all others. Compassion is the attitude that goodwill develops when it sees people suffering or acting in ways that will lead to suffering. You want them to stop suffering. Empathetic joy is the attitude that goodwill develops when it sees people happy or acting in ways that will lead to happiness. You want them to continue being happy. Equanimity is the attitude you have to develop when you realize that certain things are beyond your control. If you let yourself get worked up over them, you waste the energy you could have applied to areas where you can have an effect. So you try to put your mind on an even keel toward the things you can’t control, beyond the sway of your likes and dislikes.

Here’s an exercise for developing goodwill and equanimity:

Remind yourself of what goodwill is—a wish for true happiness—and that, in spreading thoughts of goodwill, you’re wishing that you and all others will develop the causes for true happiness. You’re also establishing the intention to further true happiness in any way you can, within your own mind and in your dealings with others. Of course, not everyone will act in line with your wish, which is why it’s important also to develop thoughts of equanimity to cover the cases where people refuse to act in the interests of true happiness. That way you won’t suffer so much when people act unskillfully, and you can stay focused on the cases where you can be of help.

For goodwill, begin by stating in your mind a traditional expression of goodwill for yourself: “May I be happy. May I be free from stress and pain. May I be free from animosity, free from trouble, free from oppression. May I look after myself with ease.”

Then spread similar thoughts to others, in ever-widening circles: people close to your heart, people you like, people you’re neutral about, people you don’t like, people you don’t even know—and not just people: all living beings in all directions. In each case, say to yourself, “May you be happy. May you be free from stress and pain. May you be free from animosity, free from trouble, free from oppression. May you look after yourself with ease.” Think of this wish as spreading out in all directions, out to infinity. It helps to enlarge the mind.

To make this a heart-changing practice, ask yourself—when you’re secure in your goodwill for yourself—if there’s anyone for whom you can’t sincerely spread thoughts of goodwill. If a particular person comes to mind, ask yourself: “What would be gained by this person’s suffering?” Most of the cruelty in the world comes from people who are suffering and fearful. Only rarely do people who’ve been acting unskillfully react skillfully to their suffering and change their ways. All too often they do just the opposite: They hunger to make others suffer even more. So the world would be a better place if we could all simply follow the path to true happiness by being generous and virtuous, and by training the mind.

With these thoughts in mind, see if you can express goodwill for this sort of person: “May you learn the error of your ways, learn the way to true happiness, and look after yourself with ease.” In expressing this thought, you’re not necessarily wishing to love or have continued relations with this person. You’re simply making the determination not to seek revenge against those who have acted harmfully, or those whom you have harmed. This is a gift both to yourself and to those around you.

Conclude the session by developing an attitude of equanimity. Remind yourself that all beings will experience happiness or sorrow in line with their actions. In many cases, their actions lie beyond your control, and your own past actions can’t be erased. In cases where these actions place obstacles in the way of the happiness you wish for all beings, you simply have to accept the fact with equanimity. That way you can focus on areas where you can make a difference through your present actions. This is why the traditional formula for equanimity focuses on the issue of action:

“All living beings are the owners of their actions, heir to their actions, born of their actions, are related through their actions, and live dependent on their actions. Whatever they do, for good or for evil, to that will they fall heir.”

Thinking in this way helps you not to get worked up about what you can’t change, so that you can devote the energy of your goodwill to what you can.

If there are people for whom goodwill is simply too difficult for you to manage right now, you might try developing thoughts of compassion instead. Think of the ways that they may be suffering, to see if that softens your attitude toward them, or helps you understand why they act the way they do. If this is too difficult, you can go straight to thoughts of equanimity about them. In other words, you can remind yourself that you don’t have to settle accounts. You’re better off freeing yourself from the circle of revenge. The principle of action and its results will take care of the situation.

Just that thought can give the mind some space to settle down and develop some concentration.

By spreading thoughts of goodwill and equanimity to all beings, you take your mind out of its everyday narratives and create a broader perspective for your meditation. It’s easiest to settle the mind into the present moment, right here and now, when you’ve let it think for a few moments about the universe as a whole. When you remember that all beings are looking for happiness—sometimes skillfully, more often not—it puts your own quest for happiness in perspective. You want to do it right.

There are other contemplations to counteract specific unskillful moods that might get in the way of your meditation, such as contemplation of your own acts of generosity and virtue for when you’re feeling low self-esteem, contemplation of death for when you’re lazy, or contemplation of the unattractive parts of the body for when you’re overcome with lust. A few of these contemplations are described in more detail in the Appendix.


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