Breath – The First Aspect of the First Foundation of Mindfulness

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In Buddhist practice we begin where we are, with what is readily available in our current experience. As we begin to investigate the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta) we start with the breath, that most fundamental of all experiences in our lives. Regardless of what our bodies look like or what condition they are in, if we are alive we have breath. Even if our breath is compromised, we are breathing. So the Buddha starts his investigation right here, at this point of consistent commonality.

We begin with the felt sense of our experience of breath. For many of us following the breath is regular our practice of meditation. But there are ways and ways to be present with the breath. As consistent a presence as it is, the breath does not always seem the same. Though the breath can change depth and rate, the different experiences we have are often due to the variations in how we attend to it from moment to moment. In this focus, let us be with the breath in a way that really honors it. Let’s attend it with our full attention and loving kindness.

Take a moment to sit with it now, very consciously, noticing the natural breath. What do you notice?

  • Where is the strongest sensation of breath in the body at this time?
    • In the nostrils?
    • The chest?
    • The belly?
  • Is there some part of the breath that the attention seems to focus on?
    • The inhale?
    • The exhale?
  • Or are you noticing more the overall arising and falling away of the breath?

Just noticing what draws you now.

As we spend time with the breath, we might wonder,

  • ‘Am I breathing the breath, or is the breath breathing me?’  

We could investigate where are the edges of this separate being I call ‘me’?

  • Is the breath inside of me ‘me’ while it’s there, and then no longer ‘me’ when it leaves through the nose or mouth?
  • Or is the existence of this shared air, this shared breath, an indication that there are no true edges where I stop and the air I sit in or walk through begins? We’ve noticed in meditation many times that with our eyes closed, our experience is simply sensation, the felt sense of being is much more spacious than what we identify as ‘me’ in the mirror.

Still with our attention on the breath, we can notice any variations in the quality of the breath or the quality of our attention.

  • Does the breath change?
  • Does it deepen or go shallow?

Just noticing, allowing the attention to be intrigued, without trying to change anything.

In our practice I often give the instruction:

  • to focus on the inhale if your energy is low, to feel the oxygenation of the blood enliven you; and
  • to focus on the exhale if the mind is racing, allowing the excess energy to be released on the breath.
  • to adjust the posture in such a way that the rib cage offers an open easy column for the breath to rise and fall
  • to focus on the lowest place in the body that you feel the breath, and if it is the belly to be aware of the breath as a billows to the flame of core energy in the area just below the belly button.

So we are used to ‘working with’ the breath. But it is not the breath we are changing, it is how we are relating to the natural breath.**

This is an important thing to notice, this development of the ability to pay attention rather than always trying to change some condition, because it is true throughout our life experience. We can see that it is not the thing itself but the way in which we are relating to it that makes all the difference.

For example, perhaps as we sit in the group meditating together, we hear another person’s breathing. How do we relate to that? We might notice irritation, feeling that the noise is disruptive to our experience, an intrusion into our lovely silence. We might feel concern as to why the person is breathing so loudly. We might have any number of thoughts or feelings that activate distracting stories within our minds. OR we could allow that external breath to be a point of focus. We could simply notice what is present in our experience. Whether it is our breath or the sound of another’s breathing, it is all breath, rising and falling away.

The focus on rising and falling away of experience is a rich and rewarding one. If it is pleasurable we might notice a desire for it to continue. If it is unpleasant we might notice a feeling of aversion and a desire for it to end, for conditions to change. We can notice how strong these desires are, how distressed we become, how we whisk our inner calm into a lather of unhappiness. Just noticing. In either case we can see the transient nature of experience.

As we recognize how our ability to attend the breath determines our experience, we might have an insight. We might see that what we bring to any experience — the intention we bring, the motivation we bring, the energy we bring, the attitude, any prior experiences, emotions and associative thoughts — all of this changes the experience of even those things that are consistent, like the breath. Isn’t this what we notice as we meditate? One sitting is very unlike another, but what really has changed?

Here’s a good example most of us can relate to: Think about a time when a sunrise or sunset really captured your attention. Then think about a time when you barely noticed an equally beautiful, equally dramatic solar event because your mind was busy with other things. You were hurrying to get somewhere, or you were in the middle of a conversation and the sun’s interaction with the earth and the clouds was just a backdrop to a more involving experience. Perhaps you were upset and weren’t in the mood to be grateful or appreciative. Nothing the sun could do could mollify you! It could dance across the sky on horseback doing cartwheels and you would turn away. Not now, Sun!

That’s how it is with the breath as well. This breath that is, let’s face it, our ticket to be here having any experiences at all, most of the time is completely ignored and taken for granted. This is not to scold us because we aren’t sufficiently appreciative of our breath. Not at all. But we can recognize as we focus on the breath that it is the most fundamental experiential laboratory for noticing the way in which we interact with the world. This ability to notice is a gift. If it triggers judgment, then we notice that as well.

This is what I love most about the Buddha’s teachings. We start where we are. We are not all caught up in fancy concepts of distant possibilities of what might be in some other realm. We are here, sitting and noticing our experience of the breath. And that small activity, unnoticeable to anyone around us, gives us great gifts.

It is humbling to realize how awareness eludes us most of the time, yet this is a human condition. One student described it so well. She said, ‘It’s always there, but I’m not always there.’ Or we could say, ‘It’s always here, but I’m not always here,” just to remind us to be here now.

Let us see it as a challenge to set our intention to be fully present, even understanding, accepting that we will fail… again and again and again. But as long as each time we fail our intention rises up and sets us on the course of noticing, of being curious, of paying attention, again and again, then we are doing well.

In meditation our mind may wander or get groggy. We forget where we are or what we are about. We are somewhere else, miles or years away, thinking, feeling, reacting to something that is not in our present physical experience. But the moment we become conscious, we can reset our intention without getting beaten down again by harsh judgment about our lack of consciousness. We simply get up, compassionately reset our intention to notice the rising and falling of our breath, and we are here. For however long we are able. Our practice is spacious enough for the moments of lostness to exist alongside the sweet reunions into consciousness, for the intention to survive intact and support us, again and again.

There is something so precious about the breath. Our awareness that it determines whether we have any experiences of all of course make it precious. But beyond that, the fact that this simple rhythmic usually quiet, barely noticeable event can so effectively ground us in the moment so that we can live fully. Such a small thing, this noticing the breath, yet every time we are able to do it the benefits of the practice bloom right there in this very moment.

So this first aspect of the Buddha’s First Foundation of Mindfulness, this breath, is like the very centerpoint of the spiral of life. It is a powerful place to put our awareness, the hidden treasure each of us carries within us that connects us to all else.

** There are however opportunities to purposely alter the breath as taught in many traditions such as Qigong, for example. These can be very powerful in calming the mind and self-healing. Our practice is about mindfulness, being present with what is, so we are not trying to change anything. Changes occur naturally just through our practice of loving awareness.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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