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.
“ Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long'; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’  Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short'; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’  He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’  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”.