Acquiring Breath Awareness

by Peter Carlson on January 22, 2015

During this dhamma dialogue, Peter fostered discussion of the preceding guided “acquiring breath awareness” meditition practice, posted just prior to this posting.  He explained the importance of the practice of vitakka and vicara, that is intentionally bring focus to the sensations of breathing, then to sustain that awareness.  Peter described the maturing of the practice of “aiming and sustaining” into one of the seven factors of awakening, dhamma vicaya, the investigation of mental phenomena.  The experience of those present for the preceding guided meditation was explored, particularly any benefits from the application of Mentholatum, a mentholated salve, at the rim of the nostrils.  The practice was intended to enhance sensations at the rim of the nostrils to create a more vivid target for the practice of vitakka and vicara.

This was followed by suggestions from Peter about ways to integrate mindful awareness of the breath into daily routines in order to provide a stable routine for interrupting unnecessary inner chatter.

Next weeks dhamma dialogue will explore the stanzas in the Anapanasati Sutta that encourage training the mind to experience a buoyant interest in breath awareness.

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Guided Acquiring The Breath Meditation January 21 2015

by Peter Carlson on January 22, 2015

This is a guided meditation that supports the practice of mindfulness of breathing, particularly the “mindful of the long…and short…) stanzas at the beginning of the instructions for anapanasati practice.  The recording of a guided 45 minute meditation on Wednesday nights is unusual; this particular meditation included the placing of small amounts of Mentholatum, a salve which includes menthol.  The menthol aroma and the tactile sensation of either hot or cold (depending on the mind condition of the practitioner) serves as a strong and persistent sensation, facilitating developing longer periods of concentration on the breath.  It’s not meant to be a permanent part of mindfulness of breathing practice, but rather a way to support developing stable focus on the breath.

 

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NOTES FOR ACQUIRING THE BREATH

by Peter Carlson on January 22, 2015

NOTES FOR ACQUIRING THE BREATH

These notes accompany the following posts which include a guided meditation .mp3 recording for practicing acquiring breath awareness as well as an .mp3 recording for the dharma dialogue which followed the guided meditation on January 21, 2015.

In a previous essay, I suggested some reasons why mindfulness of the sensation of breathing is beneficial for furthering the process of awakening. Here are the relevant stanzas from the Anapanasati Sutta (The numbers refer to the sequencing of the 16 stages of development in the sutta):
“[1] Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long'; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ [2] Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short'; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’ [3] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’ [4] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.’ (Translated by Thanissaro, downloaded from Access To Insight)
This essay focuses on the practical application of mindfulness of breathing that promotes mental stability and begins to promote serenity and mental clarity. “Breathing in long…breathing out short.” establishes a continuity of focus, and, as I practice, becomes the primary practice for what is called “acquiring the breath”, which is the ability to maintain easy access to breath awareness in all settings other than formal meditation practice.
There are several ways to practice acquiring the breath:
Á Find ways to embed cues for remembering to access breath awareness in your daily environment, such as little cue cards that say “be mindful”, or daily routines that can instigate breath awareness such as waiting for traffic to move. Watch the breath and try to notice whether the intention to resume driving occurs on the in- or out-breath.
Á Take mini-meditation breaks while at work or at home. For example, I sit in the chair in my office and practice mindfulness of breathing while waiting for my next client to arrive. This increases the likelihood that I’ll remember to watch my breathing while listening to my client. Watching the breath during this activity doesn’t interfere with my ability to pay attention. Breath awareness serves as a way to interrupt the wandering of the mind, so I can actually be more effective at attending to what’s going on. There’s a psychological term, “state-dependent learning” that suggests that information and behaviors acquired in a particular situation are more easily accessed and used when the conditions of that situation are repeated. In other words, sitting in that particular chair in that particular spot reinforces my ability to notice and interrupt daydreaming or other distractions.
The terminology of the sutta suggests that the primary purpose of mindfulness of breathing is to experience an uninterrupted breath awareness. This is unrealistic; it’s the nature of the mind to be alert to novelty and determine “friend or foe, food or poison”. Typically, this determination is immediately accompanied by some internal narrative and/or behavioral response, driven by pleasant or unpleasant feeling (I like to use the term affect rather than feeling, because an affect describes an emotion and the urge to act that accompanies the emotion).
Mindfulness of breathing, because of the neutral feeling tone associated with the sensations around the nostrils, isn’t prone to the fairly automatic emergence of internal commentary or reactive behavior. This neutrality creates a “buffer” that interrupts the transformation of feeling into internal narrative and/or impulsive reactivity. This interruption doesn’t necessarily make the feeling, narrative or impulse to act disappear—it denies a certain sort of “momentum” to the emerging automatic reaction, providing time for different responses to be considered.
What this means operationally is that, even though breath awareness might be predominant, there will be more or less noticeable “threads” of feeling, narrative or impulsivity coinciding with breath awareness. The key function is that more energy is being guided towards breath awareness than the intrusive thoughts and feelings. Here’s a way to understand this: when neurons are working, they need fuel—glucose—and blood supplies it. The more fuel a particular cluster of neurons receive, the more connections there are between those neurons and the stronger the signal strength is between them. That is, when the mind is clinging to a particular narrative, feeling or behavior, it gets more fuel, and then becomes more dominant. When the mind is intentionally focused on breath awareness, more fuel goes there instead! This doesn’t mean that that coinciding narrative is “turned off”, like with a switch; it means that the narrative is being “starved” of fuel, thereby losing strength.
In the last essay, I mentioned vitakka and vicara, usually translated as aiming and sustaining, as important skills to cultivate, which eventually mature into dhamma vicaya, usually translated as investigation of mental phenomena. Intending to notice the first awareness of the in-breath and persisting in that noticing for the duration of the in-breath is an example of “fueling” the cluster of neurons associated with increasing body awareness. This makes the neural network “stronger”, but doesn’t have the felt sense of urgency normally experienced when attention is drawn to a novel stimulus, because the sensation of breathing is neutral. This ability to intentionally focus on what is emerging into awareness quite rapidly becomes a core skill in the practice of vipassana, insight meditation.
One of the first capabilities to be mastered with this practice is the ability to notice if what is emerging into awareness is wholesome or unwholesome; if it’s wholesome, fuel it with attention—if it’s unwholesome, send the fuel back to breath awareness instead of feeding the emerging unwholesome mental fabrication. This is the practice of what are called the four noble efforts: the ability to notice emerging wholesome conditions, the ability to foster them, the ability to notice emerging unwholesome conditions and the ability to deny fuel to the conditioning process.
As mentioned above, it’s unreasonable to expect the mind to easily stay with the breath, so the ability to aim attention (vitakka) with mindfulness to any emerging conditioning process and sustain awareness (vicara) sufficiently long to determine whether the process produces calmness and clarity is quite valuable. This is combined with the training rule to let go of the undesirable mental conditioning process and go back to the breath is fundamental to spiritual progress.
The next essay will focus on the part of the sutta that says “He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.”

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Why Breath Awareness Is Important

by Peter Carlson on January 15, 2015

This is the second in a series of discussions regarding the Anapanasati Sutta, (mindfulness of breathing), a core teaching for Buddhist meditation practitioners.  During this talk, Peter described several aspects of mindfulness of breathing that supports increasing the frequency and stability of focus, both in the practice of samatha (cultivating concentration) and vipassana (cultivating insight into the conditioned nature of reality).  The terms vitakka (aiming awareness at the onset of the in- and out-breaths) and vicara (thorough awareness of the experience of in-and out-breaths) were described as the initial stages for developing dhamma vicaya bojjhanga, (the investigation of mental phenomena awakening factor). Peter pointed out that cultivating sambojjhanga, (the seven awakening factors) is a major orientation in both the Anapanasati Sutta and the Satipatthana Sutta, (The Four Foundations of Mindfulness).

The teaching points of the Anapanasati Sutta will be explored over the next few months, with emphasis on the actual practice of mindfulness of breathing.  To further this process, there will be training meditations provided during the normal 45 minute meditation practice period at 7 PM Wednesday nights.  It’s uncertain whether the training meditations will be recorded.  During next week’s meeting, January 21, meditators will be provided with Mentholatumto apply on the rim of the nostrils with Q-tips, to facilitate ongoing awareness of the cycle of breathing in and out.

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The Value Of Breath Awareness

by Peter Carlson on January 15, 2015

THE VALUE OF BREATH AWARENESS

This is the first of a series of essays organized around an exploration of the specific practices advocated in the Anapanasati Sutta, most frequently translated as the teaching on mindfulness of breathing. According to Buddhist tradition, this is the practice that Siddhattha Gotama perfected during the night of his awakening, the fulfillment of human spiritual potential. During the previous talk on January 7, I explored the implications of the “prelude” in the teaching, during which the Buddha emphasized the qualities of the assembly to whom the talk was presented. I think this was presented to inspire a sense of community and mutual support/accountability in developing a solid meditation practice. Here is the URL for the translation I’m using for this exploration, at Access To Insight: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.118.than.html

Here are the first two stanzas of the sutta that provide instructions:

“There is the case where a monk, having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building, sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect, and setting mindfulness to the fore. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.
“[1] Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long'; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ [2] Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short'; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’ [3] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’ [4] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.’ (translation by Thanissaro, downloaded from Access To Insight)
Why is mindfulness of breathing so useful in the development of insight? Here are some observations:

Á Breathing is something that is ever-present during life (except the occasions when we hold our breath or the breathing pattern is interrupted through concentration). Visualizations and mantras are quite valuable for concentrating the mind, but we can participate in life without them, but not without breathing!
Á Breathing provides physical sensations that are predominantly neutral in feeling tone. I often describe feelings as on a continuum from ecstatically pleasant, through a mildly pleasant range, into a neutral zone, or a mildly unpleasant range to an agonizingly painful experience. These feelings, which I call affect, a psychological term associated with emotion and the motivation to act. Affect has a potency and I regard it as a “driver” of what we think and how we behave. Modern researchers use terms such as approach affect, for example, “I like this and I want more!”, or avoidance affect, an example being “I hate this and must get rid of it”. Breath awareness is a neutral affect, that is, it doesn’t automatically draw attention and organize an emotional or behavioral response. Therefore, a conscious decision is required to examine the sensations that occur while breathing in and out, and a persistent effort is required to stay with the breath sensations, because they aren’t potent like pleasant or unpleasant sensations.
Á Paying conscious attention (which is what mindfulness is, after all!) to the breath automatically has a calming influence. When pleasant or unpleasant feelings are stimulated, the whole body is activated, and the degree of activation depends upon how strong the feelings are and how long they persist. The effects on the body include increased blood pressure and heart rate, muscle tension, and cortisol is injected into the blood stream, particularly when the feelings are unpleasant and strong. Cortisol has an important function for survival, gearing the body up to fight or flee, but prolonged exposure (what we call enduring stress) causes the cortisol to become toxic, with a damaging effect on blood vessels and other parts of the body. When awareness of breathing in and out is prolonged, the amount of stressful hormones such as cortisol is diminished, and the whole system becomes stabilized and harmonious.
Á With prolonged attention, the awareness of the breath sensations becomes more subtle and refined, creating a more intimate, detailed awareness of the sensational experiences, not only of the breath, but also elsewhere in the body and mind. It’s almost like using a zoom lens of subjective awareness—the breath sensations seem to “take up more space” as concentration increases over time. This works well for increasing internal physical and mental awareness, and important skill in Buddhist practice, call dhamma vicaya, usually translated as “investigation of internal phenomena”.
Á I find the cycle of breathing in and out useful, as the process requires effort to inhale, and the release of effort when exhaling. Every time I exhale, I can train the mind to let go and the body to relax!

There is controversy about what “setting mindfulness to the fore” means. Some commentators and teachers suggest this means placing attention at the rim of the nostrils, or just outside the nostrils, above the upper lip. Others teach that awareness is to be directed to the abdomen, noting the rise and fall of the abdomen during the cycle of breathing in and out. In any case, the phrase can be understood that awareness of the breath should be foremost in one’s attention.
I’ve tried both the abdomen and the nostrils over the last 32 years, and I focus on the nostrils. I asked Bhante Gunaratana which is preferable, and he said that focusing on the abdomen is for the practice of “dry vipassana”, that is, vipassana that doesn’t emphasize concentration as a primary goal of preliminary practice before practicing vipassana, and focusing on the nose promotes higher degrees of concentration, either prior to or along with the cultivation of vipassana.
The basic strategy starts with vitakka and vicara, that is, aiming attention at the onset of the in-breath and sustaining attention for the duration of the in-breath, and then repeating this for the out-breath. This technique isn’t mentioned at all in the sutta or agama versions, or elsewhere—it only occurs in the commentaries, composed centuries after the time of the Buddha. Reading the excerpt above, the relevant words are “discerns” and “trains”.
If you read the ending sections of the Anapanasati and Satipatthana Suttas, reference is made to the “seven awakening factors” as important skills to perfect prior to awakening. One of those factors is dhamma vicaya bojjhanga, translated as the investigation of mental phenomena awakening factor. I’ve been teaching that vitakka and vicara are the preliminary stages for developing the factor of investigation. The assumption is that intentionally directing awareness to the arising of the in-breath and continuing to monitor the process of inhalation is the basic skill that later matures into the factor of investigation, applying to any mental phenomena that arises in awareness. This is a core skill for the practice of vipassana, the goal of which is to be able to discern the emerging mental conditions that, when unskillfully attended to, create dissatisfaction and the false notion of an enduring self.
In this regard, the very first part of the practice of mindfulness of breathing is training the mind to be able to realize the three characteristics that Buddhism emphasizes, impermanence, non-self, and the dissatisfaction that is the consequence of craving and clinging to the misperception of an enduring self.
As we proceed further in the exploration of this sutta, we will elaborate further the other parts of the above quote, beginning with “…he trains himself”.

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Guided Walking Meditation

This guided meditation was recorded on January 10, 2015 during a one day mindfulness retreat led by Peter.  During the recording, two alternative walking meditations were described: walking with breath awareness and walking tracking the changing sensations noted in the soles of the feet.  Both were described as ways to cultivate mindfulness of intentionality, that […]

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Anapanasati and Community

During this first dhamma dialogue of the new year, Peter began a series of explorations of one of the core teachings of Buddhism, the Anapanasati Sutta, the discourse on mindfulness of breathing (See notes.) It was  pointed out that this discourse is perhaps the only one in the Pali Canon to include an extensive “prelude” […]

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