Breath, the Most Important Thing

Ajaan Lee

Breath, the Most Important Thing

When we take the body — composed of elements, aggregates, sense media, and its 32 parts — and the mind — or awareness itself — and simplify them to their most basic terms, we’re left with name and form (nama, rupa). Form is another term for the body made up of the four elements. Name is a term for the mind residing in the body, the element that creates the body. If we want to cut back on states of becoming and birth, we should take as our frame of reference just these two things — name and form — as they’re experienced in the present.

How does form — the body — stay alive? It stays alive because of the breath. Thus, the breath is the most important thing in life. As soon as the breath stops, the body has to die. If the breath comes in without going out, we have to die. If it goes out without coming back in, we have to die.

So think about the breath in this way with every moment, at all times, regardless of whether you’re sitting, standing, walking, or lying down. Don’t let the body breathe without your mind getting some good use out of it. A person who doesn’t know his or her own breath is said to be dead. Heedless. Lacking in mindfulness.

As the Buddha said, heedlessness is the path to danger, to death. We can’t let our minds run out and get stuck on external preoccupations, i.e., thoughts of past or future, whether they’re good or bad. We have to keep our awareness right in the present, at the breath coming in and out. This is called singleness of preoccupation (ekaggatarammana). We can’t let the mind slip off into any other thoughts or preoccupations at all. Our mindfulness has to be firmly established in our awareness of the present.

The mind will then be able to develop strength, be able to withstand any preoccupations that come striking against it, giving rise to feelings of good, bad, liking, and disliking — the hindrances that would defile the mind.

This reflection by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo is from the essay, Visakha Puja.