Almost the first thing most people here when they practice meditation is, “Follow the breath.” Mindfulness of breathing is the most common and one of the very best meditation techniques we have in the arsenal of contemplative practices. But most people are doing it wrong. Well, if not wrong exactly, then there are ways to get more out of your breath meditation. As usual, the secrets are found in the oldest Buddhist Teachings: Don’t FOLLOW your breath.
We hear the injunction to “follow the breath” so often, that you might get the idea that the Buddha said it. He did not. Here is what the Buddha actually taught about breath meditation. When you are ready:
When one breaths in long, he knows, “I am breathing in long”.
When one breaths out long, he knows, “I am breathing out long.”
When one breaths in short, he knows, “I am breathing in short”.
When one breaths out short, he knows, “I am breathing out short.”
He trains to breath in and out experiencing the whole body.
He trains to breath in and out relaxing the whole body.
This is a very famous teaching, with surprisingly various interpretations. Most of what you have heard is not ideal. The first four lines are fairly straightforward: notice the length of the breath as a way of turning your attention to the physical act of breathing. It’s the next line, “experiencing the whole body,” where things get interesting.
The Visudimagga, a famous commentary says that “the whole body” means the whole body of breath. It says that one should focus on the breath at the tip of the nose, and follow the breath as it goes in and out. The idea is to notice every millisecond of breath as it changes from inhalation to exhalation. I have spent many hours doing this kind of meditation, and it is far from ideal. First, perching your attention on the tip of the nose is extremely narrow. And trying to break down experience into milliseconds is anxiety producing and very busy. It does lead naturally to the next step, “relaxing the whole body.”
Another interpretation is that one is to follow the breath as it enters the nose, flows through the esophagus, and into the lungs. Then back out again. One can even follow the breath to other parts of the body such as the arms, legs, or even down to the feet. Again, I’ve spent untold hours doing this kind of meditation. If you get bored easily, this is kind of the amusement park ride of breath meditation. It can be very entertaining to watch the breath whoosh around from place to place. In some versions of this, you eventually settle the breath to a “comfortable spot” which could be the nose, or chest, or knee, or whatever. Again, if this works for you, fine, but I find it way too busy and not leading to peace.
I recommend taking the radical step of doing what the sutta actually says in plain English (well, relatively plain Pali). Namely, “breath in and out experiencing the whole body.” DON’T restrict your attention to one spot on the body. DON’T chase your breath around and around is it goes in and out. Instead, bring the experience of breathing to the mind. Slowly widen your focus of attention until it includes the entire body. As you train, you should eventually experience every breath throughout your entire body. No extra thinking is required. And believe me, there is nothing so incredibly conducive to complete relaxation. The next step, “relax the entire body” is an absolutely snap when you are breathing with your entire body.
Now, you may find it a little hard to do at first. Let me recommend the following; when you start this practice, breath experiencing as much of the body as your attention can fill. This is probably just your jaw, shoulders, and chest. Now take a few breaths and see what it feels like to breath from the perspective of your arm. As you relax and allow yourself to become sensitive to these sensations, you will feel this process quite clearly. Now widen out your focus again to include your arm and everything else. As you relax your body and become more and more sensitive, soon you will truly experience the entire body breathing. It will transform your meditation, believe me.
One final note: you may be scared of your own level of relaxtion. You may be worried that you are not being “mindful” enough either because your attention is spread across your entire body instead of tightly focused on your nose or belly. You might be worried that the pleasure and peace you feel is problematic. Well, I have good news. Here are the next couple of lines from the sutta quoted above.
He trains to breath in and out experiencing bliss.
He trains to breath in and out experiencing pleasure.
In other words: enjoy! Enjoy your meditation and you will do it more and get more from it.