I was introduced to meditation in 1975 through a systematic approach of maintaining moment-by-moment mindfulness of the sensations associated with breathing. I found that approach to be useful for discipline, but quite intense and demanding, and not conducive to joy and ease.
Moreover, when I looked into the original texts, I found that they didn’t mention awareness of physical sensations, nor of mindfulness as a practice of tracking sensations a moment at a time – though these references are plausible interpretations of ‘mindfully one knows one is breathing in … breathing out.’
But, as an exploration, I went back to the basics of noticing how I was aware of breathing, and picked up on the fluid rhythm of the life force that the physical act of breathing moves and moderates. The Pali word for this is ‘pāṇa’.
This is the energy, rather than the sensations, associated with breathing. This aspect of the breath as an energy is commonly acknowledged in the spiritual traditions of India and China, as well as in non-mechanist cultures – so it seems reasonable to assume that it informed the meditative process that the Buddha outlined.
The significant point is that this embodied energy connects the material to the mental realm. Embodied energy runs through the stirring, stress, calm and gladdening of our entire nervous system: if it’s distorted, it inflames and corrupts the mind; if it’s healthy, it clears it. Accordingly, a trained focus on the energy associated with breathing offers a means to calm, brighten, understand and clear states of mind (and heart).
If this seems unusual, note that in the Buddha’s discourses there is no mention of maintaining a one-pointed focus on any particular physical feature of the body. On the other hand, focusing on the energy associated with a living body does fulfil instructions such as ‘thoroughly and fully sensitive to the entire body’ and ‘calming the bodily formation.’ And it brings around the bodily ease that mindfulness of breathing is said to lead to.
…This is a pragmatic approach: the vitality and ease that a settled body can bring can lift the mind out of oppressive emotional and psychological obstructions. It also brings around a greater degree of grounded stability.
This has far-reaching significance: with an increase in hyperactive mentality, attention disorders, psychological breakdowns and social dysfunction, as well as a disregard for the natural world, society in general has become disembodied and groundless.
This condition speaks of an urgent need to get aligned with the subtle and life-enhancing aspects of our material reality. In the microcosm of our own bodies, ānāpānasati offers this.
This reflection by Ajahn Sucitto is from the book, Breathing Like a Buddha, “Breathing Is Life,” (pdf) pp. 14-15, 16.