We had the first session of our 4-week Introduction to Meditation course this morning and in today’s class we looked at and meditated using a technique drawn from Buddhist tradition called Mindfulness of Breathing, or Anapanasati.
I should add that you don’t have to be Buddhist to either practise or experience the benefits of this meditation; I had the privilege of being taught this meditation on a Buddhist meditation retreat that I attended last year where I was able to learn and receive instruction from members of the Triratna Buddhist order, but they were more than happy to extend these practices out to non-Buddhists and the benefits are there for all to discover and enjoy.
I included this meditation in our opening session together as this is a simple meditation that anyone can learn and practice and I believe it could easily be incorporated into a home practice.
It is made up of four separate stages all of which use the breath as an object of awareness or concentration. It is important to bear in mind that this meditation is not a breathing exercise; it is not about controlling the breath in anyway, as we do in our yogic breathing, or pranayama, exercises, but instead we are allowing the breath to flow naturally, and simply having an awareness of the breath.
By focusing on the breath you begin to notice the tendency of the mind to jump from one thought to another, the so-called “monkey mind”, so the simple discipline of using an object of awareness or concentration helps to bring us back to the present moment and the richness of experience contained therein. Over time and with practice if we keep bringing our awareness back to the breath, our minds will gradually quieten down and we begin to feel more content.
So coming to the practice itself: to begin, find a comfortable seat, trying to keep the spine erect, where possible head, neck and torso straight. Experiment with seated postures to find the one that suits your body – suggestions include Easy Pose (a comfortable cross-legged position or Sukhasana), Thunderbolt Pose (Vajrasana), Hero Pose (Virasana) or possibly Half or Full Lotus (Ardha Padmasana, Padmasana). Blocks or cushions can be used to make the position more comfortable. Alternatively you could sit on a chair, feet flat on the floor. Some of my ladies this morning sat with their backs against the wall to aid comfort so just experiment to find what works for you.
Once you have found a comfortable seat take a few long, deep breaths, preferably deep abdominal breaths to encourage the body and mind to slow down. Take your awareness around the body briefly, feeling the earth connection with the mat/seat/cushion beneath you, sitting up tall, relaxing the shoulders and drawing up through the crown of the head.
Start to watch the breath ebb and flow with a relaxed, open mind.
Stage 1 – Counting the Breath after the Exhalation
In the first stage you use counting to stay focused on the breath. You count after each out-breath, i.e. breathe in – breathe out, count 1, breathe in – breathe out, count 2, etc. all the way up to 10. Once you reach 10 you start again at 1 and continue round again.
Keep following the breath, staying with this stage for at least 5 minutes. It is important to remember you are observing the natural flow of the breath not shaping or controlling the breath. Just observe the breath as it flows in, as it flows out and then count.
If you find that your mind wanders, acknowledge the thoughts, let them pass and come back to the physical sensation of the breath every time, as many times as need be. If you have lost your place with the counting just start again at 1 and continue with the cycle to 10.
Really let your awareness stay with the out-breath, notice the qualities of the out-breath, the downward movement in the body, the sense of letting go and the feeling of relaxation as your body releases.
With regard to timing the stages, as I was leading the group meditation I chimed my singing bowl at each 5 minute interval, however, if you are practising at home you can always set a gentle alarm/timer to let you know when your desired meditation time is reached.
Stage 2 – Counting the Breath after the Inhalation
In the second stage you continue to count the breath but this time your count before the inhalation, anticipating the breath that is coming, i.e. count 1, breathe in – breathe out, count 2, breathe in – breathe out, etc. all the way up to 10. Once you reach 10 you start again at 1 and continue round again.
So this second stage is very similar to the first and we continue to count in cycles of ten breaths, we just change the position of the count which subtly changes the experience of the meditation.
This time really notice the qualities of the in-breath, let there be a subtle shift to noticing the sensations of the inhalation, the upward movement in the body, the feeling of expansion and energy that accompanies the in-breath.
Stage 3 – Observation of the breath – no count
In the third stage you drop the counting but continue to observe the breath as it flows in and flows out. This is considered to be Mindfulness of Breathing in its truest form.
This is simple in one way but without the count of the previous two stages there may be more scope for the mind to wander or to become distracted and if it does just gently guide your attention back to the breath.
Try to notice the breathing as a continuous process, letting the inhalation flow into the exhalation and back into the inhalation, rather than as a series of in-breaths and out-breaths.
Stage 4 – Developing one-pointed concentration
In stage four we are narrowing and sharpening the observation of the breath, encouraging the mind to move to a finer level of perception by bringing your awareness to the sensations of the breath which will aid in producing a deeper level of calmness and peace within the mind.
We begin to observe the breath around the tip of the nose, around the nostrils and the upper lip paying attention to the subtle sensation around the tip of the nose where the breath first enters and last leaves the body. Noticing the sensation of the breath as it enters the body, for example, the cool air flowing in, noticing the breath as it leaves the body, perhaps the warmth of the breath on the upper lip. However it feels for you, just narrowing the focus of your awareness.
Ultimately your meditation practice, is just that, your practice, so do whatever works for you. We will be exploring three other techniques for meditation over the next three weeks, all working towards the same goal of learning to tame and focus your mind but using different methods.