Category: Buddhist Meditation
Anapanasati or “mindfulness of breathing” is an essential requirement in Buddhist meditation that uses the breath (anapana) as a focus for mindfulness (sati) to develop a state of mind that is firmly grounded in the present moment. Anapanasati is a combined simultaneous practice of Samatha (concentration practice) and Vipassana (insight practice). It is also the first subject stated by the Buddha in the Maha-satipatthana Sutta, the Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness.
When you practice mindfulness, you learn to observe and identify the individual events that make up the full range of your every day experience. You systematically examine the different phenomena that occur in the here-and-now while you are sitting in meditative posture or while you are engaged in various activities.
A prominent translator of the Pāli Canon, gave this analogy:
"Awakening is like a mountain on the horizon, the destination to which you are driving a car. Mindfulness is what remembers to keep attention focused on the road to the mountain, rather than letting it stay focused on glimpses of the mountain or get distracted by other paths leading away from the road."
— Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Maha-satipatthana Sutta
According to some teachers in Theravada Buddhism, regular practice of mindfulness of breathing alone may lead to the removal of all the Mental Defilements (Klesas) and eventually to enlightenment. If you are interested in (but not familiar with) Buddhist meditation techniques, I suggest that you do a lot of reading on these subjects first to improve your conceptual understanding of the terminology.
Prior to applying the steps in practicing mindfulness of breathing, here are some preparatory guidelines:
- Find a secluded place – Silence is very important when practicing mindfulness. Buddhist teachers recommended their students to practice in a forest, at the foot of a tree, inside a room, or in any empty area that is conducive for meditation. If you are unable to find a place where there is complete silence, just choose a quiet place where you can have some privacy.
- Sit down & cross your legs – It is generally recommended that you sit down with your legs crossed when practicing meditation, but you can also meditate while reclining, walking, or standing. Sitting is more energy-producing than reclining and less energy-producing than walking and standing, thus it has the quality of putting you in a more balanced state.
- Keep your body erect – Keep the upper part of your body erect with all the bones of your spine linked together in a vertical position. Put your hands on your lap with the back of the right hand over the palm of the left. You can close your eyes or leave it half-closed. Keep your head straight but tilt it a little bit downwards with your nose perpendicular to the navel.
- Put your attention in front – Fix your attention at the spot beneath the nostrils or on the upper lip, depending on where you can strongly feel the air coming in and out. Don’t try to control or hold back your breath, but breathe naturally and consistently instead. Controlling your breath not only disturbs your concentration but also requires energy, and since you’re going to be sitting for quite a while, you need all the energy that you have.
The Anapanasati Method
There are four tetrads (i.e., sets or groups of four) in the Anapanasati Method, which makes this exercise a total of sixteen steps. The exact instructions from the sutras are italicized.
It is advisable that you first master the first tetrad before moving on to the next. If you’re going to practice without any teacher, there are tons of books, articles, and videos out there that could help you understand and apply this method. If you don’t have the right discipline for training and self-study, then it would be best for you to go to a Buddhist meditation center and train under the guidance of a qualified teacher.
First Tetrad: Contemplation of the Body (Kaya)
In Buddhist thought, the body (kāya) may either refer to the physical body (rūpa-kāya) or to the mental body (nāma-kāya). The body is a conglomeration of the four properties of earth, water, fire, and wind (the classical elements). In this set, you concentrate on your breathing with your body as your frame of reference. That means, as you concentrate on your breath, you are also being mindful of your body as a whole. Follow these steps:
1. Discerning long breaths – If you breathe in and out a long breath, comprehend this with full awareness. “Breathing in long, he discerns, 'I am breathing in long'; or breathing out long, he discerns, 'I am breathing out long.’”
2. Discerning short breaths – If you breathe in and out a short breath, comprehend this with full awareness. “Breathing in short, he discerns, 'I am breathing in short'; or breathing out short, he discerns, 'I am breathing out short.’”
3. Experiencing the whole body – Breathe in and out while taking note of the sensations of your body, i.e., make a mental one-word note of whatever your body feels during the beginning, middle, and end of the two phases: the in-breath and the out-breath. Your notes might include “thinking,” “hearing,” “cold,” “tension,” “pain,” “pleasure,” etc. Note these sensations one by one as they occur and then return to the sensation of breathing. “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’”
4. Calming bodily fabrications – As you watch the in-breath and the out-breath, try to feel the calmness and tranquility that goes with them. Eventually, your body will start to have the same sensations and the unpleasant sensations like pain, tension, and uneasiness will gradually disappear. “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.'”
When you practice mindfulness with all your attention on the breath, the mind will start to automatically stay with it. You become fully aware of your breathing without any need to control your thoughts. Of course, this doesn’t happen in just one sitting that is why you have to practice consistently, initially applying some effort and will power to maintain your focus. The longer you practice, the easier it gets and the faster you experience results. One of the things you will experience here is the absence of discontent and the experience of enjoyment. Discontent is the reason why the mind starts to wander. When you start to feel that you are enjoying watching your breath, control and effort will be released and your mind will remain steady naturally.
Second Tetrad: Contemplation of Feeling (Vedana)
In this set, you should be mindful of the breath with feelings as your frame of reference. Feeling (vedanā) is the experience of sensations such as pleasure, pain, and neither pleasure nor pain. When you get pretty good at practicing the first tetrad, you’ll start too experience something called “pitisukha” (rapture and pleasure). The Buddha taught that the arousing of pitisukha, along with the experience of one's breath, is a crucial stage in meditation. Steps 5 and 6 are focused on these two feelings. Follow these steps:
5. Being sensitive to rapture or joy (pīti) – When you breathe in and out, comprehend this with full awareness. Whenever a feeling of rapture or joy arises, set your awareness on investigating it and make sure that it stays in place. Keep it firmly in mind and don't let your frame of reference change into something else. Then use concentration to look into the nature of that feeling. “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in sensitive to rapture.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out sensitive to rapture.'”
6. Being sensitive to pleasure or happiness (sukha) – When you breathe in and out, comprehend this with full awareness. Apply the same procedure above when you start to feel that pleasure or happiness is arising from within you. “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in sensitive to pleasure.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out sensitive to pleasure.'”
7. Being sensitive to mental fabrication (citta-saṃskāra) – Breathe in and out while taking note of mental formations. During the beginning, middle, and end of the in-breath and out-breath, make a mental one-word note of any kind of habitual thought that arises. Note these thoughts one by one as they occur and then simply go back to the sensation of breathing. “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in sensitive to mental fabrication.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out sensitive to mental fabrication.'”
8. Calming mental fabrication – As you watch the in-breath and the out-breath, try to feel the rapture and pleasure that you are now experiencing. Thoughts naturally arise and then pass away. Any kind of thought that enters your mind cannot really stay there for too long if you just remain calm, hence let it go and simply go back to the exercise. “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in calming mental fabrication.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out calming mental fabrication.'”
Pitisukha (Rapture and Pleasure)
In Pali, the compound word pitisukha means the combination of rapture and pleasure. If you don’t like these words, you can also use joy and happiness. In meditation, pitisukha refers to the rapture and pleasure that one experiences through “letting go.” Attachments, like our future concerns and thoughts about the past, serve as hindrances to meditation. Once you develop the habit of sitting down in a quiet place to concentrate on a single object, such as your breath, you will eventually learn how to let go of your attachments and become mindful of the present moment.
Mental Fabrications or Formations
When feelings arise, our tendency is to follow them with certain hopes and desires in relation to our past experiences or future expectations. These are what constitute mental fabrications or formations, which creates karma that binds us to samsara. Therefore, you must guard your mind against these mental fabrications to make sure that it stays with its object of concentration, the breath. One of your objectives at this stage is to prevent your preoccupations from getting involved with your practice.
Third Tetrad: Contemplation of the Mind (Citta)
The mind (citta) is what stores up the various forms of good and evil. At this stage, you should be mindful of the breath with the mind as your frame of reference. Buddhism describes experience in terms of six senses. These senses are sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, touch and mind. In mindfulness of breathing, you first calm the first four senses until they disappear. You then experience the breath only through the senses of touch and mind. A firm grasp of Samatha Meditation (concentration practice) will help you appreciate the steps below.
9. Being sensitive to the mind – When you breathe in and out, comprehend this with full awareness. You are now only focused on two things here: the thought of breathing and breathing itself. Set your awareness on investigating them and use your concentration to look into the nature of these two. Soon, you’ll begin to experience your breath mostly through the mind sense alone. Just keep at it. “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in sensitive to the mind.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out sensitive to the mind.'”
10. Satisfying the mind – At this point, you’re experiencing the breath only through the mind sense. This basically means that you have calmed the sense of touch into disappearance. Of course, you are still alive and still breathing normally; it’s just that you’re experiencing your breath as a mental process. Further practice leads to a decrease in mental discursiveness and an increase in your state of awareness. “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in satisfying the mind.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out satisfying the mind.'”
11. Steadying the mind – As you become more skillful with Anapanasati, you will eventually reach a high state of concentration during which there is a suspension of the Five Hindrances to Meditation (sensual desire, anger/ill-will, sloth/torpor, restlessness/worry, doubt). The Five Hindrances are not permanently extinguished, but temporarily suppressed through the attainment of the Five Factors of Jhāna (rapture/joy, pleasure/happiness, applied thought, sustained thought, and one-pointedness). “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in steadying the mind.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out steadying the mind.'”
12. Releasing the mind – The keyword here is “release,” which also means to “let go.” Let go of the mind and just let awareness stand on its own. The Five Factors of Jhana must also fade away progressively until you are only left with one-pointedness. You may be having so much fun experiencing all sorts of things earlier, but at this stage you will have to let go and do more serious stuff (like examine the true meaning of the Four Noble Truths). One-pointedness concentration is a blissful experience anyway, so you’re not losing anything by letting go. “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in releasing the mind.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out releasing the mind.'”
Fourth Tetrad: Contemplation of Mental Objects (Dhamma)
|Can you find him?|
Mental objects (dhamma) are conditions maintained within you, such as the skillful and unskillful qualities that occur mixed together in the mind. These mental objects can be any one of those belonging to the Five Hindrances, Five Aggregates, Ten Defilements, or the Three Marks of Existence.
In this set, you should be mindful of the breath with mental objects as your frame of reference. A firm grasp of Vipassana Meditation (insight practice) will help you appreciate the steps below, but to give you an idea on how to apply them, take a look at this instruction from Buddha on abandoning pleasure:
"As a monk is dwelling thus mindful & alert — heedful, ardent, & resolute — a feeling of pleasure arises in him. He discerns that 'A feeling of pleasure has arisen in me. It is dependent on a requisite condition, not independent. Dependent on what? Dependent on this body. Now, this body is inconstant, fabricated, dependently co-arisen. Being dependent on a body that is inconstant, fabricated, & dependently co-arisen, how can this feeling of pleasure that has arisen be constant?' He remains focused on inconstancy with regard to the body & to the feeling of pleasure. He remains focused on dissolution... dispassion... cessation... relinquishment with regard to the body & to the feeling of pleasure. As he remains focused on inconstancy... dissolution... dispassion... cessation... relinquishment with regard to the body & to the feeling of pleasure, he abandons any passion-obsession with regard to the body & the feeling of pleasure."
— Samyutta Nikaya 36.7
The Buddha here states how one can abandon clinging (passion-obsession) to the body and the feeling of pleasure. With regard to practicing mindfulness, this is what you should do:
13. Focusing on impermanence – When you perceive "pleasure," try to know the cause and observe carefully the actual arising and passing away of the feeling of pleasure. Remember that everything is impermanent. “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in focusing on inconstancy.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out focusing on inconstancy.'”
14. Focusing on dispassion – Once you see that pleasure doesn't really lasts, you will then become detached from your wrong views about it. You will understand that your desire to experience pleasure is the main cause for the arising of it. “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in focusing on dispassion [literally, fading].' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out focusing on dispassion.'”
15. Focusing on cessation – By perceiving the actual dissolution of the phenomenon of pleasure and becoming unattached to it, you give up your craving for it. “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in focusing on cessation.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out focusing on cessation.'”
16. Focusing on relinquishment – Relinquishing means “giving up” or “abandoning” something. Upon gaining insight into the nature of pleasure, wisdom arises. This wisdom lets you completely abandon this object that defiles your mind. “He trains himself, 'I will breathe in focusing on relinquishment.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out focusing on relinquishment.'”
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, Anapanasati or Mindfulness of Breathing is a combined simultaneous practice of Samatha (concentration) and Vipassana (insight), which means you don't just focus on an object, you are also mindful of everything that's happening to you both internally and externally. While you focus on the tip of the nose, you also take note of every other thought that enters your mind. However, you don't hold on to these thoughts, but simply notice that they are there then allow the thoughts to fade away naturally. To say it another way, after a thought enters your mind, just take note of it then bring your attention back to the tip of your nose. After all, you wouldn't be able to really concentrate initially without being bothered by random thoughts.
Another common question that people have is regarding the sequence to be followed in practicing the tetrads. There really is no rule concerning which one you should try out first. Students who do Vipassana, for example, might choose to go immediately to practicing the fourth tetrad. It all depends on your objective and your current skill level. Nevertheless, I think the best way to practice Anapanasati is through a linear and progressive way, meaning, you start with body, then feelings, then mind, and lastly the mental objects. Notice that the tetrads are arranged in such a way that you first work with (1) body and (2) feelings, which are focused on developing steadiness of the body. This becomes very useful for the practice of the next two tetrads (3) mind and (4) mental objects, both of which aims in developing steadiness of the mind. Just remember that the more you practice, the faster you experience results.