Buddhist Meditation Classes & Practice

The Value Of Breath Awareness

by Peter Carlson on January 15, 2015


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”.

Last Call for the Intensive Study Group

by Peter Carlson on January 2, 2015

Over the last several years, Peter has facilitated  intensive study groups organized around various topics related to Buddhist teachings and practices.  This year’s series begins on Tuesday, January 13, from 7:30 to 9 PM, meeting in Peter’s office in his home, the building in front of the meditation hall.

Because of the upcoming 9-day meditation retreat beginning March 13, this series will only include 9 weeks.  The topic will parallel the Wednesday night topics organized around the Anapanasati Sutta, the teaching on mindfulness of breathing.  The exploration of the topic is to help develop the skills important to get the most out of the retreat experience in March, but can obviously be of benefit generally in spiritual development.

Each participant will commit to 45 minutes of formal meditation practice per day during the 9 weeks.  Peter will provide more in-depth and personalized feedback for each participant in a seminar format, that is, each meeting will include an interview with each participant about their practice, followed by a brief general discussion from all the group members.  The interviews and home practice will include integrating mindfulness of breathing into daily life routines, furthering the cultivation of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood for each group member.

This is not “group therapy,” even though Peter has co-facilitated group therapy with his wife for several years.  The intention is to cultivate the ways and means to develop the process of awakening, often referring the the application of breath awareness to realize the concepts laid out in the Buddhist teachings.

The fee for the series of meetings is $225, which can be paid in full or through periodic installments during the course.

The group begins on January 13, so contact Peter soon to reserve a place. The number of participants is limited to 6 and there are now 5 commitments.  Email Peter or call him at 407-339-5444.

Peter Carlson is leading a Mindfulness Meditation Retreat in Jacksonville on Saturday, September 17, 2014. Download the retreat flyer for details.

The Value Of Overcoming The Hindrances

by Peter Carlson on June 2, 2014

I recently proposed that the next series of meetings that I’ve called the “Tuesday Night Intensive Study Group” will be themed around exploring what are called the “five hindrances” in Buddhist practice. The announcement about this course is posted on the website with the pertinent information about the group.

What I want to present with this article is why this topic is important for improving the quality of life. First, what are the hindrances? Classically, there are five: sense desire, aversion and ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and, finally, skeptical doubt. I’ve been talking about them on Wednesday nights for a few months now, so I don’t want to elaborate on their particularities here, because you can look them up through our website. The goal of the series of 12 meetings is to be able to relate to life with more clarity, confidence and patience.I perceive two levels of approach to and understanding and overcoming the hindrances, and this is what I want to describe here. The first level is what I call the process of personality integration, and the second level is what I call personality transcendence.

PERSONALITY INTEGRATION initially involves carefully observing the flow of internal subjective experience to notice how different circumstances stir up different self-states, creating stress, confusion and interpersonal conflict. For example, I might perceive that I’m a competent driver in traffic, and as I drive, I feel relatively relaxed and confident in my choices while driving. However, under different circumstances, there might be someone in the car whose opinion of my driving is critical, telling me to slow down, speed up, warning me about situations that I’m already aware of, and so on. My self-state when driving with this person is in conflict with my previous sense of my competency, and there’s a strong urge to protest, become agitated, and so on.

This example illustrates the hindrance of aversion and ill-will. Buddhist concepts and meditation practices counter this disturbance in the flow of experience. When mindfulness isn’t operating, the urgency of the agitated feeling, combined with the almost automatic identification with the critical comments as requiring protest, seems irresistible. When mindfulness is operating, then there’s a spacious non-reactivity occurring during these events that buffers against the urgency.

When we practice mindfulness of breathing meditation, we’re training to notice any feelings or thoughts that deviate from the benign experience of noting sensations while inhaling and exhaling. Upon noticing them, we train to be mindful of them and set them aside, going back to the breath without reacting to the feelings or thoughts. This is setting aside the hindrance, in this case, aversion and ill-will. This routine is brought to any feelings and thoughts other than breath awareness with such persistence and clarity that, with sufficient practice, we can experience flows of inner awareness that aren’t affected by any hindrance.

This state of mind is called access concentration. Without elaborating on what is being accessed, what is experienced is calmness and clarity. This calmness and clarity is actually modifying the neural networks of the brain, increasing internal awareness and the ability to regulate emotional reactivity. For the purposes of this article, this level of calmness and clarity produces personality integration on a temporary basis. There is no noticeable self-state conflict, and reactivity to the criticism of the “back seat driver” is minimal or non-existent.

Of course, we aren’t going to normally be in access concentration conditions in everyday life, but having this awareness while meditating has a residual effect, sort of like building muscle—It becomes easier to not be annoyed or rattled.

PERSONALITY TRANSCENDENCE is the next stage of internal development. The difference between the stages is not like drawing a line between one and the other. Rather, it’s an increasing ability to see that what used to be self-defining (that is, either the self-state “I’m a competent driver” or “I can’t stand to drive the car with this critic!”) is not so. The terms of comparing one self-state with another lose potency and are seen as mental constructs. As the ability to not take compliments or criticisms personally increases, the ability to be kind, compassionate, generous and patient with the events of life increases, and this is the transcendent function of spiritual practice.

My hope is that the participants in the study group will use the structure of the group meetings, combined with the commitment to daily 45 minute sitting practice, to learn how to integrate the conflicted self-states, setting the stage for more spiritual development. If you’re interested in this training, please contact Peter at 407 339-5444 or via email.
We will begin the group as soon as there are at least 6 committed to the study group; as of this writing, there are 3 commitments
I wish you well. Peter


Upcoming 12 week intensive study group

by Peter Carlson on June 2, 2014

As many times during the year as is reasonable, Peter offers a 12 week study group, focusing on one or more topics for practice.  The next study group will systematically address the five hindrances: sense desire, aversion and ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and skeptical doubt.  The emphasis will be on practicing identifying and setting aside the hindrances.  The group will meet Tuesday nights from 7:30 to 9, in a seminar format, that is, Peter will interview each participant about their practice the previous week, with the intention of fostering a deeper and more productive practice experience, with the participation of others present.

Each participant will commit to at least one 45 minute meditation a day for the duration of the meetings.  The fee for the study group is $300, and can be paid in one payment or two, which would be due the first and sixth night of the group meetings.  The meetings will be in Peter’s office in his home; the meditation hall we meet in is in the back yard.

This is an excellent opportunity for meditators to get expert feedback and suggestions from a teacher who’s been practicing over 30 years. The group meetings will begin as so0n as at least 6 people commit to the group, hopefully in early June. Any questions or stated commitments should be addressed to Peter via email.  Participation will be on a “first come, first served” basis.

Lovingkindness Meditation

taught by Peter Carlson Basic teaching of Buddhist meditation to develop: A gentle, open heart Compassion and forgiveness Support for the happiness of others Acceptance of what life has to offer Peter has practiced Buddhist meditation since 1982 and is the founding teacher of the Orlando Insight Meditation Group. As a psychotherapist, he facilitates integrating […]

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Mindfulness of Breathing Meditation Course

Bok Tower Gardens provides a peaceful setting for a day of meditation.  Participants will enjoy: Introduction and Dharma talks with time for questions and discussion Sitting and walking meditation for beginning and experienced meditators Easy access to outside garden space as an alternative for walking meditation Covered dish vegetarian lunch coordinated by members of the […]

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