In the beginning, when you first notice the power of perception, you can easily feel overwhelmed by how pervasive it is. Suppose you’re focusing on the breath. There comes a point when you begin to wonder whether you’re focusing on the breath itself or on your idea of the breath.
Once this question arises, the normal reaction is to try to get around the idea to the raw sensation behind it. But if you’re really sensitive as you do this, you’ll notice that you’re simply replacing one caricature of the breath with another, more subtle one. Even the raw sensation of breathing is shaped by how you conceptualize raw sensation. No matter how hard you try to pin down an unfiltered experience of breathing, you still find it shaped by your idea of what breathing actually is. The more you pursue the reality of the breath, the more it recedes like a mirage.
The trick here is to turn this fact to your advantage. After all, you’re not meditating to get to the breath. You’re meditating to understand the processes leading to suffering so that you can put an end to them. The way you relate to your perceptions is part of these processes, so that’s what you want to see. You have to treat your experience of the breath, not as an end in itself, but as a tool for understanding the role of perception in creating suffering and stress.
You do this by de-perception: questioning your assumptions about breathing, deliberately changing those assumptions, and observing what happens as a result. Now, without the proper context, de-perception could easily wander off into random abstractions. So you take the practice of concentration as your context, providing de-perception both with a general direction and with particular tasks that force it to bump up against the operative assumptions that actually shape your experience of the present.
The general direction lies in trying to bring the mind to deeper and more long-lasting levels of stillness so as to eliminate more and more subtle levels of stress. You’re not trying to prove which perceptions of the breath depict it most truly, but simply which ones work best in which situations for eliminating stress. The objectivity you’re looking for is not the objectivity of the breath, but the objectivity of cause and effect.
The particular tasks that teach you these lessons begin with the task of trying to get the mind to stay comfortably focused for long periods of time on the breath—and right there you run into two operative assumptions: What does it mean to breathe? What does it mean to be focused?
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the book, The Karma of Questions, (pdf) pp.37-38.