What are we doing when we sit down and cultivate our meditation practice? The most important piece is bringing mindfulness, awareness, and attention back to a simple object.
The mind loves its proliferations – the things it gets excited about, attracted to, wound up about. The mind’s tendency is to move toward complication, to be endlessly attracted to anything other than simplicity. So the first step in meditation is putting attention onto something simple: the sensations within the body or the physicality of being in the body. What is the feeling within the body? Is it relaxed or tense, spacious or tight, heavy or light, warm or cool? Pay attention to the posture so that there’s a sense of balance – not leaning forward too much, not leaning backward too much, not leaning to the right or to the left – really trying to establish an upright posture. Pay attention to relaxing the body – sitting up straight, not ramrod straight but straight in terms of holding the body in an energetic and engaged way.
Sometimes in meditation there’s a sense that we shouldn’t really pay too much attention to the body, that we should forget the body and go to the mind. It’s true to a certain extent that the mind is the important aspect. The mind is where we create our suffering. But the mind and body are intertwined; the feeling tone within the mind is conditioned and influenced by the body. If we are sitting there slumped over, not really willing to put forth the effort to be in the body, then the mind becomes dull or listless. By engaging the body in an upright and balanced posture, the mind becomes bright and energetic. When the body settles in this way, we can sit for quite a long time and not feel a lot of discomfort. Having a base of ease, energy, and engagement will support the practice and support the mind.
As we allow the body to settle, bring the attention to the sensation of the breath. Where do you experience it most prominently? Is it at the tip of the nose? Inside the nasal passages? At the back of the throat? In the chest? In the abdomen? There’s not one ‘correct’ place to feel the breath. Pay attention to where it seems clearest. Then pay attention to the in-breath, allowing the breath to come in naturally, not forcing or controlling it, not making it even or long or short, but just paying attention. What’s the sensation of the in-breath? Is it pleasant? Is it easeful? Is it cool? Is it warm? Does it feel constricted? Just pay attention. What does the in-breath feel like? Next, what does the out-breath feel like?
As you breathe, notice how the breath affects the rest of the body, how it affects the mind. How is the breath related to the feeling throughout the body? What does it feel like at the top of the head, in the face, neck, and shoulders? What does it feel like across the chest, or on the back, or on the different areas of the abdomen? What does it feel like in the legs? Because the breath affects the whole body, we can relax and energize the body and the mind with the breath. Generally, the in-breath has an energizing quality, and the out-breath a more a relaxing quality. Allow that relaxation and energy to move through the body as you experiment with the breath.
Once you’ve become more connected and centered within the breath, body, and mind, it’s helpful to allow a more one- pointed focus to establish itself. What’s a comfortable place to focus? It should be on something that feels interesting, rather than coming from an opinion of what is ‘right.’ Pay attention to what is actually interesting, then allow the mind to settle and abide in the sensation of the breath within that particular sphere of focus. It will be different for everyone. Around the tip of the nose is interesting to me.
When I first started practicing, that area was way too close to where all my thinking was going on, so I paid attention much lower down. But these days, the tip of the nose is the most interesting place to me, and it tends to work. See what place works for you. Then allow the attention to settle there, to enter and abide in a quality of attending closely to the in-breath and the out-breath. You don’t need to force it; just let the interest sustain itself. If the mind wanders, that’s pretty ordinary – it’s not a big deal, not a disaster, not a sign of failure as a meditator. All it is, is a wandering mind. Reestablish the attention; reconnect with the interest in the breath as it comes in and goes out.
Ajahn Chah used to caution against spending one’s time pushing and pulling the mind around, chasing after it and pulling it back. The image he used was of running here, running there, pulling this, pulling that. When you lose focus, then just reestablish the attention. You don’t have to run off here and run off there to track down a mind that’s wandered. It hasn’t really gone anywhere; it’s still right here. As soon as you reestablish attention, that is where the mind is. Be interested in simply connecting with the sensation of the breath, with the presence of the body right now.
When the Buddha instructed Mahā Moggallāna, he gave meditation advice on dealing with hindrances like sloth and torpor, but he also emphasized the central aspect of Dhamma: “All Dhammas are not to be clung to” or “Nothing whatsoever should be adhered to.” If one knows this much, one can understand the whole Dhamma. Whatever phenomenon arises in the mind, don’t let the mind get stuck on it, cling to it, hold to it, get entangled in it. Recognize it, see it clearly, and then let it go.
When Ajahn Chah was teaching, he’d say that practice is extremely simple: “Knowing and letting go. Knowing and letting go.” We can turn to that place of clarity and simplicity. Knowing what’s happening and then letting it go, releasing it. Of course, we don’t often do that. We pick things up, we pile them on, we carry them around, we cling to them. The feeling of weight and burden on the mind is completely dependent on this picking up and holding on. Ajahn Chah once pointed to a big rock and asked, “Is this rock heavy?” His student said, “Wow, that’s a big rock; it’s really heavy!” Ajahn Chah replied, “As long as you don’t pick it up, it’s not heavy.” Whether physically or mentally, we are always picking something up. The essence of Dhamma practice is seeing clearly and not picking things up, not piling a burden onto the mind, onto the heart. Whether it’s a particular duty, mood, or perception – do we agree or disagree with another person – don’t pick it up, don’t carry that person around. Come back to the quality of knowing and letting go.
This is where the breath is so useful. It’s obviously not ‘me or mine’; it’s just a function of nature. Breathing in, breathing out. Connecting with the quality of attention to the breath, it is easier to pay attention to what clutters the mind. What makes things complicated? Be mindful of not just the simplicity of the breath going in, the breath going out, but also of what the mind tends to do. What does it like to pick up and carry around, creating a burden for itself? See the tendencies of the mind. Are we adding anything, are we carrying anything, are we getting excited about something? Is it useful? Is it beneficial? Are we getting irritated or averse to something? Worried or fearful? See the force of desire that comes up.
The Buddha talks about three basic types of desire that cause suffering: sensual desire, or craving for pleasure or gratification; the desire for being, or wanting to become something; and the desire to not be, or wanting to get rid of something. With the breath as a neutral foundation, a mirror for what the mind is cranking out, we can see the force of desire. We can’t force the mind not to have its various desires, but by being able to see clearly and understand those desires, we can let go.
There are so many basic ways that desire functions in the human mind. With practice, we become more attentive and skilled at recognizing and not being entangled and pushed around by desire. We start seeing more clearly how desire works. For example, a company had a really bright idea to sell bread-making machines. They put a lot of work into manufacturing the machines, but nobody bought them. So a marketing company advised them to design another bread-making machine that was bigger and more expensive and then to advertise them both. It worked. As soon as they started selling the more expensive model, everyone got interested in the cheaper one: “Wow, this is a deal!” Now, we all probably know someone who owns a bread-making machine. We’ve probably got one at the monastery. The company learned to manipulate our desire. We have desires, and we often don’t think about whether we really need to fulfill them – about whether we actually want a bread-making machine, even if we’re getting ‘a deal.’
The same thing happens internally. There are so many examples of feelings of dissatisfaction or feelings of wanting that are not really known or seen or recognized simply as desire. As we pay attention to desire, externally our life may not become less complicated, but internally life can become more peaceful. By sustaining interest in something quite basic like the breath, we can explore and reflect on what’s pushing the mind around, what desires are being stimulated. And as we pay attention, become more familiar, and understand the nature of desire, we can let go. Knowing and putting down, knowing and releasing, knowing and relinquishing. Maintain that theme as you use the breath. Become more present with the breath, more focused on a particular sensation within the breath, and the mind will settle and things will drop away. Give yourself that opportunity.
Adapted from a talk given on June 30th 2009. The talk was subsequently printed to coincide with Ajahn Pasanno’s 60th birthday, in the booklet “Wisely Reflecting.”