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Retreat at the Waldhaus
Day 2: Meditation on Breathing
Godwin: Today we are going to have a very serious discussion. We have to discuss our friend, the breath. A question we can explore together is, Why did the Buddha choose the breath as an object of meditation?
Retreatant: Because the breath is always there.
Godwin: This is a very important point: it is always there. Even when we are sleeping, it is there. And as it is always there, this is why we should relate to it as a friend. Who is the friend who is with us always? Even when we are asleep, our friend is there. So it is very important to make a connection with our friend. And then during the day when we are awake, the friend is always prepared, ready to tell us just to be in the here and now. Because the breath always happens now, in the present. So in any situation, any moments when we are daydreaming, fantasising, getting lost in the past or in the future, our friend is patiently waiting. Anytime one wants to experience the present moment, the reality, it is there to help us. What a friend we have! Anytime, all the time. First point. What else?
Retreatant: The breath serves as a mirror
Godwin: The breath is always a mirror, or to put it in another way, it always indicates to us our state of mind, our emotions. Can anyone give a practical example?
Retreatant: When we get angry, our breath quickens.
Godwin: Not only when there is anger, but also when there is fear and anxiety it indicates our state of mind to us. And when the mind is calm and relaxed, what happens to the breath then? When we are meditating and the mind becomes calm sometimes we cannot even feel that we are still breathing. I know some meditators who come running to me, saying: I think I have stopped breathing! That is one of the many problems meditators have!
So as you rightly said the breath, our friend is very useful, very objective; he or she is never mistaken. Who is the friend who can always be objective? So in that sense the breath is like a mirror, it just reflects your condition objectively, just as you are. Anything else?
Retreatant: It reminds us that we are connected with the universe.
Godwin: All living beings have to breathe. So as you rightly said, it reminds us of the Buddhist idea of interconnectedness, interrelationship. What Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing can easily be realised by connecting with the breath. It is also related to the fact that we are breathing the same air. We cannot say that this is my air, which is separate from the air others breathe. You see what a deep, interesting, profound implication this has. Anything else?
Retreatant: It is coming and going, and changing all the time.
Godwin: Absolutely right. It is changing all the time. Rising, falling, coming, going. If you can really observe it, it becomes very clear how from moment to moment it is changing. Anything else?
Retreatant: You can smile with the breath.
Godwin: I think Thich Nhat Hanh said this beautifully: Breathe in, feel calm, breathe out, smile. So again, we can use our friend to feel calm, we can use our friend to learn to smile. And sometimes a smile can be infectious. It can infect others, again making a connection with others. Any more discoveries?
Retreatant: The breath reminds us that we are alive.
Godwin: We can use the breath to remind ourselves that we are living, and living from moment to moment, if each breath can be seen as the first breath or the last breath. I mean you are then really living from moment to moment. And the moment of dying is also the last breath. I read one Buddhist text where it said that if you practise this meditation at the time of dying, then death may come naturally to you. So it helps us when we are living, and it helps us when we are dying. And again, who is the friend who will be with us until the last moment? The only friend who will be there is our last breath. And it helps us to experience calm, to experience some peace. It helps us to die peacefully. Anything else?
Retreatant: The breath shows us that there is a polarity - the in-breath and the out-breath.
Godwin: You use the right word: polarity. It is not just one way, one has to have these two processes. And this polarity can be used in a very important way. One thing is that in meditation it can sometimes be very useful to find out whether there is a difference between the in-breath and the out-breath. If the in-breath is long, does the out-breath also become long? And another very interesting aspect is what happens between the in-breath and the out-breath. Please try to discover this tomorrow if you have not already discovered it.
In the Tibetan tradition, they use the breath to develop compassion: You breathe in the suffering of the world, you breathe out compassion for other beings. And I have been using it for developing loving-kindness; we might try it sometime tomorrow. Breathing in friendliness to yourself; breathing out friendliness to others. Breathing in - forgiving yourself; breathing out - forgiving others. Please try this. Because if you can develop this association, if you can make such a connection, then the breath will always be associated with loving-kindness. So that can be another very positive aspect of our friend: whenever you think of your friend, loving-kindness arises. You can have loving-kindness for yourself, and you can have loving-kindness for others. See how the polarity can again be used functionally.
Retreatant: It is an experience of reality when you are breathing with awareness: to be alive, physical sensations, coolness, freshness...
Godwin: That is why it helps us to experience some calm. Another thing is it is so non-selective: there is no Buddhist breathing, there is no Christian breathing, there is no Hindu breathing. And equally it is non-selective between females and males.
There are so many divisions in this world: religious divisions, racial divisions, gender divisions and so on. Here there is no such division. So the friend is always reminding us to let go of these divisions - that itself is a valuable teaching. The friend is saying: Give up all these concepts and identifications that you have. I hope when I go back to Sri Lanka I can tell this to the Tamil and the Sinhalese people also: Please stop the war. There is no Buddhist breathing, no Sinhalese breathing, no Tamil breathing. I hope they will listen to me.
The Breath Helps Us Develop Awareness
An important reason why the breath is used as a meditation object is that it helps us to develop awareness. The meditation which we did today is called in Pali anapanasati. It is awareness or mindfulness or attention in relation to the in-breath and the out-breath. A problem meditators have is that they try to exclude other things, they try to exclude sounds, for instance. When they hear sounds they become a problem. When they have thoughts they also hate the thoughts. Poor thoughts!
Any sensations in the body, they think this is a disturbance or a distraction in the meditation. But it is very simple: the first emphasis must be on awareness. Just being aware of whatever is happening. This gives us a very interesting experience: you hear sounds, so you are aware of the sounds, and then see with the sounds what happens to you. We see we can convert sounds into noise, which is then disturbing us. It can be a very deep realisation, that the problem arises because of the way we relate to things.
When I talk about sounds, I sometimes speak about an experience we have in the meditation centre at Nilambe. There is a bell to wake you up at 4:45 in the morning. Thus you can just imagine what association the sound of the bell has! But it is the same sound which is heard to indicate lunch. No difference. Where is the problem? It rests in its meaning, the associations we make. So it is not the sound, not what you hear, but how you relate to it.
As I was saying, the breath helps us to develop awareness, and while sitting we discover this very important skill. Then in everyday life it is a matter of using the skill we discovered while sitting. So you see, meditation has an important application in everyday life.
Another glimpse or experience we can have with the help of our friend the breath is that the friend helps us to abide in the present. You may have a further realisation that even the idea of the present is just a concept. So you can have a glimpse of what is described in the Dhamma as the timeless experience where the past, present and future do not exist. It shows that our little friend can show us some very deep and profound aspects.
Another similar experience is what is taught in the Dhamma as anatta: there is no I or me. So here again you can have a glimpse that there is only the in-breath and the out-breath - there is no I or me apart from the in-breath and out-breath.
Another aspect which I tried to present today was how, with the help of the breath, we learn non-doing. It is very interesting that we are so used to doing things, controlling, manipulating and interfering. Because of this strong conditioning, we cannot leave the breath alone. Some meditators come and tell me that they are really controlling their breathing. It is sometimes not very easy to get them to let go of the control. But what the breath is teaching us is to leave it alone. And then that helps us to experience this non-doing - just doing nothing. Allowing the body to do what it likes. In Sri Lanka we are very good in that non-doing! I think in the West you need to learn some non-doing.
It is certainly true that we are so busy now, we are so active, that we have no time to stop and reflect. This is one of the greatest challenges human beings have in this modern age where there is such a lot of activity, where one has to be extremely busy otherwise one is left behind. And in this activity, in this being busy, how does one create some inner space? How can one create some inner stillness? That is a real challenge. Because if you are doing a job - I mean, a picture came into my mind of people who get down from a train. They walk and run from the train like a horde of ants. But someone has to do the job. So if you are doing a job you have to be like the ants. Otherwise you arrive late at the office. In Sri Lanka there is a register people have to sign, and if you come in too late for work there is a red mark. So you cannot do slow walking meditation from the train. The red mark will be there!
That is the challenge we have - how to function in such a society, how to do things quickly, and at the same time have this inner space, this inner friendliness. This is a real challenge we have. I will talk about this on the last day - how to be like ants and still be a meditator when you go back to your place in society.
Retreatant: Ants are busy but they take care of each other.
Godwin: There is a simple explanation for that. Ants know their boundaries, we do not know our boundaries!