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The Basics of Buddhist Meditation
Talks in Chi Lin Nunnery, Hong Kong
Day 2: 8th October 1998
2: Anapanasati and its Advantages
Godwin: First I would like to welcome each one of you. I'll be giving a talk, and then afterwards we'll have a discussion, and then we'll meditate. After meditation we can do some chanting, both Pali chanting and also chanting in Chinese.
The subject that has been suggested to me today is to speak about the benefits of meditation on our breath. So we can reflect on the question as to why the Buddha chose the breath as an object of meditation.
Now one thing is, as I said yesterday that a very important aspect of meditation is developing awareness, mindfulness. So here we can use our breath to develop awareness. In Pali this technique is called Anapanasati, developing awareness, mindfulness, in relation to the in-breath and the out-breath. We can use the breath to develop the practice of mindfulness and awareness because we are breathing all the time and the breath is with us all the time. Ajahn Chah, one of the meditation masters in Thailand, has said that if you have time to breathe, then you have time to meditate. So this is the first point I want to make as to why the Buddha might have chosen breathing as a technique for meditation.
Experiencing the Present Moment
Another important aspect of meditation is learning to experience the present moment, the here and the now. So when we breathe, it is very interesting, we always breathe in the present, we always breathe in the here and the now. Sometimes I like to refer to our breath as our friend. If we make a connection with our breath as a friend, then whenever we think of our friend, our friend will help us to experience the present moment. Whenever we are lost in thoughts about the past and the future, and there is confusion and disorder in our mind, we have only to think of our friend and immediately we can experience the present moment.
Another important aspect is that, as we all know, we are sometimes affected by our thoughts. Most of the time thoughts control us. Here again our friend can help us to learn to let go of the thoughts, maybe even for the first time; to learn to control the thoughts rather than allow the thoughts to control us by being with our friend and experiencing the present moment, letting go of the thoughts about the past, letting go of the thoughts about the future.
And related to our thoughts are our emotions. There's a very strong connection between our thinking, between our thoughts, and emotions. So sometimes thoughts can create emotions, and then what happens is that when we have these emotions we can make them bigger than they really are. Here again, if we can remember our friend immediately it will help us to recover from our emotions. Because if we can spend a few minutes with the breath in such a situation it will help us to find some space in our mind and then that space can help us to recover from whatever emotions we are experiencing. You can experiment with this. You can try it for yourself.
Another useful thing our friend can show us is our state of mind. We all know what happens to our friend when we are affected by a strong emotion like anger, fear, excitement, stress and insecurity. What happens to our breath? It moves very, very fast. So it can be a very useful signal, a very reliable signal to show us what is happening in our mind. If we have problems with an emotions like anger, our friend will immediately show to us from the way the breathing moves that we are getting angry. So it can be a very useful signal, as I said, and then if you can listen to the signal, heed the signal, you'll be able to recover from that anger or whatever emotion immediately.
In the same way when our mind is calm, when our mind is relaxed, when our mind is still, what happens to our friend? The breath also becomes calm. Sometimes it becomes so subtle that you don't even realise that you are breathing. So if we can learn to make a connection with our friend, the friend will always tell us what is happening in our mind. Some of the friends we have can sometimes be wrong - or maybe most of the time they can be wrong - but you'll realise this friend is always right, this friend is always reliable.
Our friend also shows us about the state of our body. Here again, the way we breathe can indicate to us our state of physical well-being, and also our state of mental well-being. If you can focus attention on the breath sometimes you'll realise the breathing can be very relaxed, sometimes the breathing can be very deep, and sometimes also shallow. And when you realise that your breathing is shallow it will always show that you are having tension in your body.
It is interesting that our friend will show that when our body is tense how naturally that will create an emotion; it will indicate the connection between feeling tense and our emotions. And one of the ways of letting go of the tension is by using our friend. Sometimes in such a situation, if you can breathe consciously, if you can take some deep breaths, you might be able to relax your mind and body to a great extent almost immediately.
Samatha and Vipassana
In Buddhist meditation there are two aspects. One is the aspect of experiencing calm and tranquillity, which is called samatha. The other aspect is developing vipassana, insight or wisdom. So it is interesting that this object of meditation, this technique, is relevant to both these aspects. When we are being aware of the in-breath and the out-breath, if we can learn not to react to what is happening then the mind becomes calm and tranquil. And then this technique also helps us to develop wisdom or insight, vipassana.
One aspect of vipassana is to experience the fact of impermanence, the fact of change. And when we are aware of the breath, we'll realise how whatever is happening in our mind and body, including the breathing, changes from moment to moment. So if you are having thoughts you'll immediately realise how thoughts are arising, how thoughts are passing away. And the same thing becomes very clear with our breath.
Here again, if we can be aware of the sensations we'll realise how from moment to moment there are varieties of sensations taking place, and again how sensations are changing from moment to moment. So we learn to be open to any changes that are taking place in our mind and body from moment to moment.
This insight which we develop through being open to change and impermanence internally will help us also to be open to changes, the fact of impermanence, when it happens externally. As you know, sometimes we have no control over what is happening inside us and we have no control over what is happening externally, in certain events in our life. Suffering arises when we resist these changes, when we resist impermanence. So if we can really be open to impermanence, and understand the nature of impermanence, this is a very powerful way of overcoming suffering. And as I said, we develop this very important insight: how suffering is created by resisting change and how we can overcome suffering by being open to change and to an understanding of impermanence.
Another important insight that can arise in relation to our breath is that we can have moments when we realise that there is only the breathing that is taking place, the rise and the fall of the breath, and that there is no ego, no sense of "I" or "me" that is breathing, but just the process of breathing going on from moment to moment.
Another very important insight is to realise that we are all inter-connected, inter-related, inter-being, although we think we are separate, foreign to each other in some sense. But when we reflect on breathing, we realise that what is common to all beings is this fact of breathing. So this should enable us to have a feeling of oneness with all beings around us because what unites us, what is common to all beings, is this fact of breathing. And we have to realise that we breathe the same air, that in relation to the air that we breathe we can't separate the breath and say the air that I'm breathing is mine. So there is this universality.
According to a Buddhist text, when we die, when we pass away, those who have meditated on this object can easily remember the breath at that time, if they are conscious, of course. I know some people who are working with those who are dying, and one of the techniques that they use in helping people to die is to get them to breathe consciously at that time, to learn to be conscious of their breathing. So when we are dying, if we can experience the present moment with our friend, then we have a good chance of dying peacefully.
So our good friend helps us to live peacefully, and it can also help us to sleep peacefully. Before you fall asleep if you can spend some time just to relax your mind and body with the breath you can sleep peacefully. And then we can die peacefully. Is there anything more that we need to live in this world peacefully?
So if you have any questions we can discuss them. Please feel free to ask any question, especially about this technique of meditation that we have discussed.
Questions and Answers
Retreatant: Yesterday we heard from you that some people are teaching other people how to manage tension, and you were saying that it's best to get rid of it. I'm very glad to hear you follow up on what you said yesterday by telling us how to get rid of tension and other emotions through watching the breathing or having smooth and deep breathing. Can you elaborate more on this please, because it is very useful. Thank you.
Godwin: So as I said, when we have emotions, unpleasant emotions, what makes it worse is our thinking, our thoughts. It is very interesting when we have an emotion. If you have space in the mind to watch your thoughts you'll realise how thoughts come so quickly at that time and how you can create a big story about what is happening. And sometimes a small emotion can really blow up just by this process of thinking.
Maybe a practical example would be if someone has made you angry, at least you think that someone has made you angry. Then what happens to you? You'll be having thoughts about that person, how that person has been behaving in the past and all such things, so that your whole attention will be centred on that person; and with the negative thoughts about that person your anger becomes worse and worse. In such a situation we can really lose control. Actually at that moment the emotions and the thoughts really control us, they really overwhelm us, as we all know. So for someone who has been making a connection with our friend in this way, at that moment, if they can spend some time with the breath, just the in-breath and the out-breath, just being completely with it, then at least for a few minutes the fermenting of that emotion with thoughts will become less.
And as I said in relation to tensions in our body, if we can really consciously and deliberately do some deep breathing this can also to a great extent help to work with that tension. In a way, one can say that being with the breath or just being with the sensation can have the same effects because we are experiencing the present moment both with the help of the breath and the sensation in the body.
An interesting process to discover is how thoughts and emotions, are involved in creating tension. Supposing someone is afraid of dogs. When such a person sees a dog, the thought immediately comes: Ah there is a dog; maybe the dog is going to bite me! And very quickly that thought gives rise to emotions. Emotions of fear, anxiety, insecurity can come. And then that can give rise to tension in the body. So with meditation, if we can see this process taking place it can be very useful, there can be very important discoveries that we can make about these things. And the process continues further: we react to the tension with thoughts and then that leads to further emotions. So it really becomes what can be called a vicious circle.
So how can we interrupt this vicious circle? How can we break this vicious circle? One way - one very powerful way - is to spend some time with the breath, because then immediately your mind comes to the present and with that all these things, the process that has been taking place as I described earlier drops away, there can be some space created by this focusing on our friend.
I took some time to explain the process of emotions in this way because I think we all can relate to what I have been saying. So what I would suggest is to experiment with what I have been saying. Just find out for yourself whether it works.
Any other questions please.
Retreatant: Some people when they teach this breathing technique mention that there should be four steps. They are soft, shallow, smooth and long. When I tried to follow these four steps I found that my heart beats faster. And when I counted the breathing I found that even my breathing became faster. So how do we deal with this situation?
Godwin: I'm not surprised, because it seems that you are trying to force the breathing in an artificial way. What is important is to spend some time just allowing the body to breathe naturally. Our friend knows very well how to breathe. Even when we are asleep our friend continues to breathe. In fact this is what I'll be emphasising when we try to experiment with this technique, to spend some time first just allowing the body to breathe naturally, without controlling it, without manipulating it, without interfering with it. Then in a very simple, natural way just knowing, just being aware of what is happening to the body when the body is inhaling and exhaling. So it is a very simple technique, but we are very good at complicating simple things!
It's interesting that in the texts it says that when the breath is long, you just know that the breath is long, when the breath is short, you know that it is short. So whatever is happening naturally, you just know it, that is all. I would like to suggest to you to please try out the way I'll be presenting the technique, and after you finish please come and tell me what your experience was.
I think there is time for one more question please.
Retreatant: Master, when we meditate, when we are doing meditation, very often we cannot meditate well. Our body, our mind or breathing is not peaceful and calm. What should we do? Shall we just stop and do something else?
Godwin: It's a very useful question that has been asked.
So I would like to offer a few suggestions. One is that when we sit to meditate, please don't have any expectations of what should happen or what shouldn't happen. And without any expectations you just know whatever is happening. What is important is not to judge, not to give a plus, not to give a minus, but just know from moment to moment what is happening in your mind and body, with some openness.
The whole idea of meditation is to experience freedom, to be free of suffering, but sometimes the way we try to meditate with all our expectations, we create suffering for ourselves. So if we have an expectation that our minds should be calm, that we should be having only positive experiences, then if they arise what we do is hold onto them. And when we are unable to hold onto them, that creates suffering. And then when the mind is not calm, when the mind is not relaxed, you will think you're not meditating rightly and then that is creating suffering. So without this idea of positive and negative, just be open, just be friendly to whatever is happening from moment to moment with awareness - that can give us immediate freedom. So I'll be emphasising this aspect when I'll be presenting this technique.
So now please take a short break and then during the short break, as we did yesterday, please try to develop awareness when you are moving; try to move slowly and consciously as far as possible, and what can help us in this is to practise complete silence during this short break.
[ Break ]
Guided Meditation on Breathing
Let us begin the meditation without any expectations of what should or should not happen.
We will begin with what is called the beginner's mind. Not knowing what is going to happen.
Let us begin by being aware of our body. The different sensations, the different movements in our body.
Let us learn to feel friendly towards our body.
Feel what it is to sit with the body completely still.
See if you can feel the stillness around you.
And now please allow the body to breathe naturally.
The body knows very well how to breathe. Just allow the body to do what it likes.
Now please find out what happens in the body when the body is breathing naturally. The different movements, the different sensations in the body when the body is breathing.
Let us just be with the different sensations, the different movements in our body from moment to moment.
Just being with our friend. Experiencing the present moment with the help of our friend.
If you are having thoughts, just know that you have thoughts and then come back to your friend.
If the mind is calm, you know that the mind is calm. If the mind is not calm, you know that the mind is not calm. No plus, no minus.
What is important is to be with our friend.
[ Bell ]
Now please don't think that the meditation is over. Just continue to know what is happening in your mind and body from moment to moment. And whatever you do, please do it mindfully: opening your eyes, changing your posture.
There should be no beginning and ending of meditation.
Now let us do some chanting, and while chanting let us also learn to use the chanting to experience the present moment. And I would like everyone to join in. It's very beautiful when there is group chanting.
[ Chanting ]
Please try to make a connection with your friend the breath, and the friend will always help you, especially when you are not doing sitting meditation. Our friend can be very useful in our everyday life.
So thank you very much for the beautiful chanting and also for asking very good practical questions.
Tomorrow and the day after we'll be discussing some very important aspects of the Dhamma. How to develop certain qualities in the heart, which is a very important thing.
Once again, thank you very much.