is a difference between being aware of a thought and
thinking a thought. That difference is very subtle.
It is primarily a matter of feeling or texture. A thought
you are simply aware of with bare attention feels light
in texture; there is a sense of distance between that
thought and the awareness viewing it. It arises lightly
like a bubble, and it passes away without necessarily
giving rise to the next thought in that chain. Normal
conscious thought is much heavier in texture. It is
ponderous, commanding, and compulsive. It sucks you
in and grabs control of consciousness. By its very nature
it is obsessional, and it leads straight to the next
thought in the chain, apparently with no gap between
thought sets up a corresponding tension in the body,
such as muscular contraction or a quickening of the
heartbeat. But you won't feel tension until it grows
to actual pain, because normal conscious thought is
also greedy. It grabs all your attention and leaves
none to notice its own effect. The difference between
being aware of the thought and thinking the thought
is very real. But it is extremely subtle and difficult
to see. Concentration is one of the tools needed to
be able to see this difference.
concentration has the effect of slowing down the thought
process and speeding up the awareness viewing it. The
result is the enhanced ability to examine the thought
process. Concentration is our microscope for viewing
subtle internal states. We use the focus of attention
to achieve one-pointedness of mind with calm and constantly
applied attention. Without a fixed reference point you
get lost, overcome by the ceaseless waves of change
flowing round and round within the mind.
use breath as our focus. It serves as that vital reference
point from which the mind wanders and is drawn back.
Distraction cannot be seen as distraction unless there
is some central focus to be distracted from. That is
the frame of reference against which we can view the
incessant changes and interruptions that go on all the
time as a part of normal thinking.
Pali texts liken meditation to the process of taming
a wild elephant. The procedure in those days was to
tie a newly captured animal to a post with a good strong
rope. When you do this the elephant is not happy. He
screams and tramples, and pulls against the rope for
days. Finally it sinks through his skull that he can't
get away, and he settles down. At this point you can
begin to feed him and to handle him with some measure
of safety. Eventually you can dispense with the rope
and post altogether, and train your elephant for various
tasks. Now you've got a tamed elephant that can be put
to useful work. In this analogy the wild elephant is
your wildly active mind, the rope is mindfulness, and
the post is our object of meditation-- breathing. The
tamed elephant who emerges from this process is a well
trained, concentrated mind that can then be used for
the exceedingly tough job of piercing the layers of
illusion that obscure reality. Meditation tames the
next question we need to address is: Why choose breathing
as the primary object of meditation? Why not something
a bit more interesting? Answers to this are numerous.
A useful object of meditation should be one that promotes
mindfulness. It should be portable, easily available
and cheap. It should also be something that will not
embroil us in those states of mind from which we are
trying to free ourselves, such as greed, anger and delusion.
Breathing satisfies all these criteria and more. Breathing
is something common to every human being. We all carry
it with us wherever we go. It is always there, constantly
available, never ceasing from birth till death, and
it costs nothing.
is a non-conceptual process, a thing that can be experienced
directly without a need for thought. Furthermore, it
is a very living process, an aspect of life that is
in constant change. The breath moves in cycles--inhalation,
exhalation, breathing in and breathing out. Thus it
is miniature model of life itself.
sensation of breath is subtle, yet it is quite distinct
when you learn to tune into it. It takes a bit of an
effort to find it. Yet anybody can do it. You've got
to work at it, but not too hard. For all these reasons,
breathing makes an ideal object of meditation. Breathing
is normally an involuntary process, proceeding at its
own pace without a conscious will. Yet a single act
of will can slow it down or speed it up. Make it long
and smooth or short and choppy. The balance between
involuntary breathing and forced manipulation of breath
is quite delicate. And there are lessons to be learned
here on the nature of will and desire. Then, too, that
point at the tip of the nostril can be viewed as a sort
of a window between the inner and outer worlds. It is
a nexus point and energy-transfer spot where stuff from
the outside world moves in and becomes a part of what
we call 'me', and where a part of me flows forth to
merge with the outside world. There are lessons to be
learned here about self- concept and how we form it.
is a phenomenon common to all living things. A true
experiential understanding of the process moves you
closer to other living beings. It shows you your inherent
connectedness with all of life. Finally, breathing is
a present-time process. By that we mean it is always
occurring in the here-and-now. We don't normally live
in the present, of course. We spend most of our time
caught up in memories of the past or leaping ahead to
the future, full of worries and plans. The breath has
none of that 'other-timeness'. When we truly observe
the breath, we are automatically placed in the present.
We are pulled out of the morass of mental images and
into a bare experience of the here- and-now. In this
sense, breath is a living slice of reality. A mindful
observation of such a miniature model of life itself
leads to insight that are broadly applicable to the
rest of our experience.
first step in using the breath as an object of meditation
is to find it. What you are looking for is the physical,
tactile sensation of the air that passes in and out
of the nostrils. This is usually just inside the tip
of the nose. But the exact spot varies from one person
to another, depending on the shape of the nose. To find
your own point, take a quick deep breath and notice
the point just inside the nose or on the upper lip where
you have the most distinct sensation of passing air.
Now exhale and notice the sensation at the same point.
It is from this point that you will follow the whole
passage of breath. Once you have located your own breath
point with clarity, don't deviate from that spot. Use
this single point in order to keep your attention fixed.
Without having selected such a point, you will find
yourself moving in and out of the nose, going up and
down the windpipe, eternally chasing after the breath
which you can never catch because it keeps changing,
moving and flowing.
you ever sawed wood you already know the trick. As a
carpenter, you don't stand there watching the saw blade
going up and down. You will get dizzy. You fix your
attention on the spot where the teeth of the blade dig
into the wood. It is the only way you can saw a straight
line. As a meditator, you focus your attention on that
single spot of sensation inside the nose. From this
vantage point, you watch the entire movement of breath
with clear and collected attention. Make no attempt
to control the breath. This is not a breathing exercise
of the sort done in Yoga. Focus on the natural and spontaneous
movement of the breath. Don't try to regulate it or
emphasize it in any way. Most beginners have some trouble
in this area. In order to help themselves focus on the
sensation, they unconsciously accentuate their breathing.
The results is a forced and unnatural effort that actually
inhibits concentration rather than helping it. Don't
increase the depth of your breath or its sound. This
latter point is especially important in group meditation.
Loud breathing can be a real annoyance to those around
you. Just let the breath move naturally, as if you were
asleep. Let go and allow the process to go along at
its own rhythm.
sounds easy, but it is trickier than you think. Do not
be discouraged if you find your own will getting in
the way. Just use that as an opportunity to observe
the nature of conscious intention. Watch the delicate
interrelation between the breath, the impulse to control
the breath and the impulse to cease controlling the
breath. You may find it frustrating for a while, but
it is highly profitable as a learning experience, and
it is a passing phase. Eventually, the breathing process
will move along under its own steam. And you will feel
no impulse to manipulate it. At this point you will
have learned a major lesson about your own compulsive
need to control the universe.
which seems so mundane and uninteresting at first glance,
is actually an enormously complex and fascinating procedure.
It is full of delicate variations, if you look. There
is inhalation and exhalation, long breath and short
breath, deep breath, shallow breath, smooth breath and
ragged breath. These categories combine with one another
in subtle and intricate ways. Observe the breath closely.
Really study it. You find enormous variations and constant
cycle of repeated patterns. It is like a symphony. Don't
observe just the bare outline of the breath. There is
more to see here than just an in-breath and an out-breath.
Every breath has a beginning middle and end. Every inhalation
goes through a process of birth, growth and death and
every exhalation does the same. The depth and speed
of your breathing changes according to your emotional
state, the thought that flows through your mind and
the sounds you hear. Study these phenomena. You will
find them fascinating.
does not mean, however, that you should be sitting there
having little conversations with yourself inside your
head: "There is a short ragged breath and there is a
deep long one. I wonder what's next?" No, that is not
Vipassana. That is thinking. You will find this sort
of thing happening, especially in the beginning. This
too is a passing phase. Simply note the phenomenon and
return your attention toward the observation of the
sensation of breath. Mental distractions will happen
again. But return your attention to your breath again,
and again, and again, and again, for as long as it takes
until it does not happen anymore.
you first begin this procedure, expect to face some
difficulties. Your mind will wander off constantly,
darting around like a drunken bumblebee and zooming
off on wild tangents. Try not to worry. The monkey-minded
phenomenon is well known. It is something that every
advanced meditator has had to deal with. They have pushed
through it one way or another, and so can you. When
it happens, just not the fact that you have been thinking,
day-dreaming, worrying, or whatever. Gently, but firmly,
without getting upset or judging yourself for straying,
simply return to the simple physical sensation of the
breath. Then do it again the next time, and again, an
again, and again.
in this process, you will come face-to-face with the
sudden and shocking realization that you are completely
crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse
on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly
out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not
crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been
this way, and you just never noticed. You are also no
crazier than everybody else around you. The only real
difference is that you have confronted the situation;
they have not. So they still feel relatively comfortable.
That does not mean that they are better off. Ignorance
may be bliss, but it does not lead to liberation. So
don't let this realization unsettle you. It is a milestone
actually, a sigh of real progress. The very fact that
you have looked at the problem straight in the eye means
that you are on your way up and out of it.
the wordless observation of the breath, there are two
states to be avoided: thinking and sinking. The thinking
mind manifests most clearly as the monkey-mind phenomenon
we have just been discussing. The sinking mind is almost
the reverse. As a general term, sinking mind denotes
any dimming of awareness. At its best, it is sort of
a mental vacuum in which there is no thought, no observation
of the breath, no awareness of anything. It is a gap,
a formless mental gray area rather like a dreamless
sleep. Sinking mind is a void. Avoid it.
meditation is an active function. Concentration is a
strong, energetic attention to one single item. Awareness
is a bright clean alertness. Samahdhi and Sati--these
are the two faculties we wish to cultivate. And sinking
mind contains neither. At its worst, it will put you
to sleep. Even at its best it will simply waste your
you find you have fallen into a state of sinking mind,
just note the fact and return your attention to the
sensation of breathing. Observe the tactile sensation
of the in-breath. Feel the touch sensation of the out-breath.
Breathe in, breathe out and watch what happens. When
you have been doing that for some time--perhaps weeks
or months--you will begin to sense the touch as a physical
object. Simply continue the process--breathe in and
breathe out. Watch what happens. As your concentration
deepens you will have less and less trouble with monkey-mind.
Your breathing will slow down and you will track it
more and more clearly, with fewer and fewer interruptions.
You begin to experience a state of great calm in which
you enjoy complete freedom from those things we call
psychic irritants. No greed, lust, envy, jealousy or
hatred. Agitation goes away. Fear flees. These are beautiful,
clear, blissful states of mind. They are temporary,
and they will end when meditation ends. Yet even these
brief experiences will change your life. This is not
liberation, but these are stepping stones on the path
that leads in that direction. Do not, however, expect
instant bliss. Even these stepping stones take time
and effort and patience.
meditation experience is not a competition. There is
a definite goal. But there is no timetable. What you
are doing is digging your way deeper and deeper through
the layers of illusion toward realization of the supreme
truth of existence. The process itself is fascinating
and fulfilling. It can be enjoyed for its own sake.
There is no need to rush.
the end of a well-done meditation session you will feel
a delightful freshness of mind. It is peaceful, buoyant,
and joyous energy which you can then apply to the problems
of daily living. This in itself is reward enough. The
purpose of meditation is not to deal with problems,
however, and problem- solving ability is a fringe benefit
and should be regarded as such. If you place too much
emphasis on the problem-solving aspect, you will find
your attention turning to those problems during the
session sidetracking concentration. Don't think about
your problems during your practice. Push them aside
a break from all that worrying and planning. Let your
meditation be a complete vacation. Trust yourself, trust
your own ability to deal with these issues later, using
the energy and freshness of mind that you built up during
your meditation. Trust yourself this way and it will
set goals for yourself that are too high to reach. Be
gently with yourself. You are trying to follow your
own breathing continuously and without a break. That
sounds easy enough, so you will have a tendency at the
outset to push yourself to be scrupulous and exacting.
This is unrealistic. Take time in small units instead.
At the beginning of an inhalation, make the resolve
to follow the breath just for the period of that one
inhalation. Even this is not so easy, but at least it
can be done. Then, at the start of the exhalation, resolve
to follow the breath just for that one exhalation, all
the way through. You will still fail repeatedly, but
keep at it.
time you stumble, start over. Take it one breath at
a time. This is the level of the game where you can
actually win. Stick at it--fresh resolve with every
breath cycle, tiny units of time. Observe each breath
with care and precision, taking it one split second
on top of another, with fresh resolve piled one on top
of the other. In this way, continuous and unbroken awareness
will eventually result.
of breathing is a present-time awareness. When you are
doing it properly, you are aware only of what is occurring
in the present. You don't look back and you don't look
forward. You forget about the last breath, and you don't
anticipate the next one. When the inhalation is just
beginning, you don't look ahead to the end of that inhalation.
You don't skip forward to the exhalation which is to
follow. You stay right there with what is actually taking
place. The inhalation is beginning, and that's what
you pay attention to; that and nothing else.
meditation is a process of retraining the mind. The
state you are aiming for is one in which you are totally
aware of everything that is happening in your own perceptual
universe, exactly the way it happens, exactly when it
is happening; total, unbroken awareness in the present
time. This is an incredibly high goal, and not to be
reached all at once. It takes practice, so we start
small. We start by becoming totally aware of one small
unit of time, just one single inhalation. And, when
you succeed, you are on your way to a whole new experience