Meditation Instructions

For something as (seemingly) simple as breath meditation, there are myriad different instructions. I find introductory meditation instructions beautiful, even after the 10th, 100th, 1000th time. It’s a little like watching a great chef cut onions, or a great pianist play scales, or a master meditator prepare their seat. It’s amazing to me how often I get some little something from an “introductory” teaching that is incredibly profound. Here are some teachings from the incomparable Ajahn Brahm.

When you are watching the breath, have the full experience of the breath. Do not think about it. Do not note it; do not say anything about it; just know it. The simpler you can make the meditation object, the more powerful it will become. This is the reason why I encourage you to put your attention on the breath and not to concern yourself about where the experience of feeling is located in your body. If you are concerned about where the breath is located in the body, that concern brings up too much body-awareness. With body-awareness disturbances of the body will arise, such as painful and pleasant feelings, heat and cold, itches, aches and pains, and other feelings. It is a cacophony of different sounds, never giving one any respite or peace. So the quicker one can take one’s attention from the physical body, the better it is for success in meditation. Just know the experience of breath and do not concern yourself with where it might be in the physical body.

When I first read this passage, it struck me that it seems to go against the Anapanasati Sutta. This sutta is the original basic breath meditation instruction, directly from the Buddha. The first step in this sutta is the famous, “Breathing in long, he understands: ‘I breathe in long’” etc. But the very next step is, “I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body.”

I am using Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, and he takes the unusual step of adding [of breath] right there in the text, changing the meaning from “experiencing the body” or experiencing the body of breath.” This is really an interpretation, which Bhikkhu Bodhi usually tries to leave out. I understand that in later editions he has changed his stance on that translation. This “body of breath” interpretation is what Ajahn Brahms teaches, and it is in line with the commentaries, but it isn’t clear at all that that is what is meant by the sutta itself. “Body of breath” certainly makes sense in Pali, but there is nothing internal to the text which conclusively points to that interpretation.

On the other hand, it gives the lie to the idea that we are supposed to focus on the tip of the nose or the belly or the chest or what not. This was an incredibly important realization for me. I had been taught to focus on a single part of the body in breath meditation, and that is a huge mistake, for exactly the reasons Ajahn Brahm lays out. The idea isn’t to get caught up in the aches, pains, and such of any particular body part but to experience the breath itself.

But which is: experiencing the whole body, or none of the body.

The proof is in the puddling, which in this case is in the sitting. After giving both teachings a try, I can report a strange discovery: they amount to the same thing. On the one hand, one can’t experience the physical experience of breathing except through the body. On the other hand, experiencing the whole body is entirely different than experiencing any one part of the body (or even racing through the whole body piece at a time). The difference in the two is semantic more than practical. So whole body, no body, no problem. Just stop squinting at the tip of your nose!

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