Category Archives: breath

But then I remember

Amidst all the conflicts going on — the mental illness that leads to massacre, the fear that leads to hate, the anger that leads to violence, the centuries old ill will between whole groups of peoples, the bristling at even listening to the views of the ‘other side’ — how are we to find even a smidgen of happiness? And is that even something we should care about at times like these? Are we like small children crying for lack of something fun to do when the whole house is burning down around us?

After a difficult night’s sleep, this morning I woke to just that sense of despair. So much sorrow, so much injustice, so much hopelessness in the world. And I felt disdain for my feeble attempts at personal happiness when the world is crumbling around me.

But then I remembered.

I remembered that I can’t help anyone else if I am drowning. So it’s not just okay but imperative that I be sure I keep my head above water, able to breathe.

Ah the breath. Yes. I come back to the breath, just noticing, but also appreciating that it is still there, still breathing me, that it is my greatest support. Gratitude arises. Appreciation. Deeper noticing. I find my footing. I feel grounded. I’m not drowning in despair.

Just like that, I land fully in this experience of life. This here right now is all I have to work with for whatever I want or need to do. This moment, this breath, this sense of connection: This is my personal point of power. I am anchored by the breath the way a tree is anchored by its roots — supported in all the ways it grows. I grow where I am planted, branching out in all directions, responding with the wisest intention and wisest effort I can manifest to the ever-changing causes and conditions of life.

In what other ways can I learn from the trees? Just like the tree, sometimes our greatest offerings are hard for us to see. Does the tree know that it offers a way for the squirrels and birds to navigate, feel safe and nest? Does it know it provides shade for the weary wanderer to rest?

What do each of us offer the world around us that we aren’t even aware of providing?

under-tree.jpg

My brother John and me under a tree

I think about that in relationship to my brother this week in particular, as the days lead up to his life celebration and I will briefly speak about him. What will I say? How will I say it? What will help those gathered? What is better left unsaid? We are all so tender in our own grief. But we also need each other at this difficult time of shared loss.

The moon is getting so full, and my heart with it. The clear night bright light keeps me awake. But in my sleeplessness, trying to wend my way back into dreams, I find myself instead re-inhabiting those last difficult days of his life, and how helpless I felt to save him as he slipped away before our eyes. I think about what I might have done differently, but nothing would have made a difference in the outcome. And I think about his life, what a difference he made every day in the lives of those who knew him. Like most of us, his life at times took dead end roads and contained some actions with painful consequences. Yet he died surrounded by loving family and life-long friends who have gone on to create beautiful memorials for him. He touched so many lives in so many wonderful ways, just by being his kind funny generous self. 

They say there are no failures, but that’s not true. There’s the failure to understand our own intrinsic value and the value of every being we encounter in our lives. We can take lessons from the trees. We can stay present, stay rooted, keep growing, keep providing for ourselves and others whatever it is in our nature to offer when we release our fear and rest in awareness and compassion.

Swinging Limb
for my brother John Culler, 1942 – 2017

Out beyond the field
that edged our neighborhood:
A tree we kids called
Swinging Limb.
Upon it we would climb
to laze the summer days away,
at rest in its dip and rise.

— Stephanie Noble

Develop concentration in your meditation practice

breathConcentration is the heart of the practice. It is how we cultivate Mindfulness. We center in and focus on the senses that are activated in the present moment. Instead of talking about it, I will offer a couple of concentration exercises for you to use.

The first is a focus on the breath. For meditators who struggle with finding the breath and staying with it, this will really help.

GUIDED MEDITATION ON THE BREATH

All sensations can be the focus of concentration practice. Sound is a particularly pleasurable sensation to attend. Here is a recording I made of a series of sounds.

MEDITATION ON SOUND

After spending time editing the recording of bells and various water sounds in nature, I was washing up the breakfast dishes and, because I was in that listening space, the sounds were absolutely amazing and wonderful. (It reminded me of being on retreat and, by the fourth day, the racket of clatter in the dining hall sounded like a beautiful symphony to me. What a gift to myself to find the joy and the beauty in simple sounds.) 

I wondered if my students, after meditating on sounds for a good part of the class, would also find the washing up so intoxicating. So we assembled in the kitchen and I did a short meditation at the sink. And indeed, with their eyes closed and their attention focused, they also enjoyed the ‘symphony’ of pouring water from pot to glass to sink and around again.

Next time you are washing up, you might try it for yourself. (Of course, don’t be wasteful of the water!)

As with all the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, I have written quite a bit. If you are interested, feel free to check them out.

https://stephanienoble.com/2009/04/22/eightfold-path-right-concentration/

https://stephanienoble.com/2011/02/23/eightfold-path-spacious-concentration/

https://stephanienoble.com/2013/09/22/wise-concentration-the-four-jhanas/

https://stephanienoble.com/2015/05/24/concentration-the-problem-with-problems/

https://stephanienoble.com/2015/06/02/breath-focus-continues/

https://stephanienoble.com/2015/06/09/thoughts-emotions-in-meditation-continuing-the-anapanasati-sutta/

https://stephanienoble.com/2015/06/12/the-wisdom-of-the-breath-the-last-tetrad-of-the-anapanasati-sutta/

Befriending the Breath

In the vipassana meditation tradition we are taught to focus on the breath. Why? Aren’t there more interesting things to focus on? Certainly there can be. Take listening, for example.

Yesterday in class we sat outside in the cool morning air and did a listening meditation, as if it were a symphony. There were many distinct sounds: sawing, hammering, traffic noises, bird calls and more. Each was like musical instrument playing its part. It was a magnificent symphony.

A listening meditation is lovely when there is rain. It’s also good for in a public space, like at the gate waiting for a flight at the airport. I remember in 2003 in the lead-up to the Iraq war, sitting with other meditators organized by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship as all the peace marchers assembled at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco. What a listening meditation that was! The sound of voices over a microphone rallying the troops, the conversations of nearby marchers getting together, the rustling and footsteps that passed by around us. When the march began we rose to take our part, feeling focused and united in purpose. We were the peace we wanted to see in the world.

Even sitting inside in a quiet room there will be sounds to listen to: the heater, the refrigerator, someone clearing their throat or coughing, some rustling perhaps, a cell phone going off (oops!), and allowing the sounds to be a symphony rather than an annoyance is skillful.

In my poetry classroom at College of Marin, we have a wall of glass facing a busy street near a fire station. Last week during the four-day annual poetry intensive, I found myself coming into relationship with that sound and here’s a poem I wrote.

Siren Song

What if the siren
echoing down the street
doppleganging by
the classroom window
is the red blur of God,
the tender wail of wanting
all beings to be well?

So listening can be a very powerful meditation when sound is the most dominant sensation you notice. And that’s the key word, ‘dominant’. We pay attention to all the senses as we begin our practice, and we might ask ‘What is the dominant sensation in this moment?’

Sometimes the most dominant sensation might be a pain in the body. If we spend time with that sensation we can notice a ‘symphony’ of more subtle sensations. We see that what we have been labeling ‘pain’ is not one solid experience but an ever-changing arising and falling away of a whole series of sensations, each one tolerable and even kind of interesting. This is not to make light of pain. I deal with chronic pain a lot in my life and at times it can feel overwhelming. But it has helped to recognize that much of the agony has to do with how I get lost in thoughts about the pain rather than really paying attention to the micro-sensations that compose it, how they arise and fall away, get stronger and softer, appear and disappear.

But generally, for most of us most of the time, as things settle down at the beginning of our practice, aches and pains are not dominant. If they are present, we sense that there are also other sensations going on in the field of our experience that are pleasant or neutral. We don’t replace one with the other, but we just notice the full range of sensation within our field of experience.

And then, if things are relatively quiet and other sensations are reasonably mild, as we pay attention, we begin to notice, even if we haven’t been directed to, that the breath is the most dominant experience. And, not only is it dominant, it is ever present. It is the most reliable sensation we have. As long as we are alive, we have breath to focus on. The rhythm, pace and depth may change but the breath carries on. Dependable. And potentially very interesting. A perfect focus. Vipassana: Awareness of the breath.

breathMany people come to vipassana practice from other traditions, and I encourage them to experiment with focusing on the breath, but to also feel free to use whatever skillful means they have in their meditation ‘toolbox’ to bring themselves fully into the present moment.

I came to vipassana meditation over twenty years ago after many years of other forms. I found focusing on the breath a challenge in part because my mother died of emphysema and her last years were a painful struggle for breath, so focusing on my breath brought up my grief. It took me nine years to have the aha! moment when I realized that MY lungs were healthy. MY breath was fine. 

But even though it became easier, it still didn’t always feel compelling, and sometimes it felt dull, even boring. But I stayed with it because I know that ‘boring’ is just a label I was putting on it, that in fact it was a rich experience when I really paid attention. And now, all these many years later, I am having a new relationship with the breath, one that recognizes that as long as I am alive my breath is my constant companion, my most intimate, reliable and supportive friend.

And so I have been writing odes and love poems to my breath! Here are some examples.

My Heretofore Unnamed Friend

All these years
it never crossed my mind,
until now, to befriend my
greatest supporter.

Oh, what oversight!

So now, with gratitude
and deep appreciation,
I name this breath
my dearest friend.

 

Lifesaver

The breath is like a lifesaver
floating on the swells
of thought and emotion.
I rest there, gently rising and falling.
When I find myself swallowed up
and sucked down into the depths,
surfacing into that circle of breath
is both relief and rejoicing.

 

No Name Breath

Breath, aware
attending
each unnamed note
of earth’s symphony…
bird song, car door, heart beat.

Breath, aware
opening
infusion of light
bursting boundaries
dissolving cherished reference points
that heretofore defined me.

Breath, aware
this, this and only this
the unlimited
the unnameable
the ever present.

 

Rescue at the Well

In a moment of dread
the unwelcome upheaval:
churning chest,
catch in the throat
woozy wobble

I make my way to the middle
and stand by the well
where steady pumps
the influx the outflow

I attend the constant motion
of my most reliable friend
and in this abiding
monstrous mutiny melts.

All poems by Stephanie Noble copyright 2016

So I encourage you to investigate your own practice with whatever is the most dominant sensation at the time. And  befriend the breath! If you are religious, recognize all the spiritual words (even the word ‘spiritual’) assocatiated with breath. If you are more scientifically inclined, then the focus on the physical process that keeps your body alive and connected to all life is a wonderful place to ground your practice. Explore and enjoy!

Breath focus continues…

This week in class we continued our exploration in meditation of the Anapanasati Sutta (mindfulness of the breath), this time adding the second tetrad, the Feelings Group. If you recall from our exploration of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, ‘feelings’ are not emotions but our basic response to experience as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. So as we meditate with a focus on the breath we find a pleasant experience of noticing the energy in the body and a sense of vibrant aliveness, and maybe we get excited about this. (The word ‘rapture’ is used to describe this state, but for me that word is simply too loaded in our culture.) We notice pleasure arising in our experience, and we develop our awareness of that sense of pleasure as we continue to consciously breathe in and breathe out.

But these experiences of excitement and pleasure are not all that is going on, is it? We also have a lot of thoughts and emotions that arise and fall away. These are mental processes that we note as a naturally occuring part of our experience as we continue to follow the breath. These thoughts and emotions are seductive and we likely get distracted from the breath from time to time, but whenever we realize we have been lost in thought, we acknowledge the existence of mental processes and come back to the breath.

We end this second part as we did the first by actively calming these mental processes, with the power of our focus on the breath. Just as we breathe in fresh air to create spaciousness in the body, we can create spaciousness in the mind. Just as we release tension in the body on the exhalation, we can release the tight tangle of thoughts.

The students found the instructions beneficial to their practice and I hope you do too, though it is of course much more challenging to do so without someone offering guidance as you meditate. If you’re in the area, come to class!

Concentration & The Problem with problems

The word ‘concentration’ is so misleading because of the way we think we need to configure our brains to do it. We think of it as a tightening and narrowing of or focus. But Wise Concentration is actually a much softer and friendlier way of paying attention to what is arising in this moment.

I recently attended a daylong retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center on the Anapanasati Sutta led by Tempel Smith who is able to express the heart of the teachings in a way we can easily understand it. The Anapanasati Sutta is the Buddha’s sixteen-part exploration of using a focus on the breath to deepen one’s practice and perception. Tempel recommended the book Breath by Breath by Larry Rosenberg, which I have been reading and highly recommend if you are interested in deepening your meditation practice.

Because in our weekly women’s meditation class we have been revisiting the Noble Eightfold Path, I held off on discussing Wise Concentration until I had had the chance to attend that retreat, read that book and experiment with the teachings on the Anapanasati Sutta.

Ana is a pali word that means life energy that comes in; apana means waste as it is expelled; sati means mindfulness, the ability to notice in an open way. So this teaching (sutta) is all about being mindful of the whole process of the breath. If you have never meditated on the breath then the idea that there could be sixteen levels of exploration sounds improbable, but if you have spent any time noting the breath you have most likely found it to be a whole lot more interesting than you would have imagined. With this sutta we have a guide to being with the breath in a way that really deepens the practice.

The sixteen contemplations of the Sutta are divided into four groupings, called Tetrads. This week we practiced the first Tetrad within our regular meditation, first becoming aware of the breath, the quality of the breath in this moment. Without judgment we notice the breath is long, short, deep, shallow, rough, smooth, etc. Then the awareness broadens to sense the whole body in relationship to the breath. Having deepened and broadened awareness, we calm the body. The breath comes in bringing fresh air, creating spaciousness; the breath leaves taking with it all the excess energy and tightness.

Off to a good start! In the coming weeks we will practice adding in each of the other three Tetrads in our meditation.

‘There is Nothing Wrong Here’

After answering any questions about this Sutta, we had time for another discussion. I always read a little excerpt from our Pocket Pema Chodron book before beginning my dharma talk or discussion, and the one I read last week, #88 titled ‘An Open Ended Approach’ really resonated, so we discussed what it brought up for us. It is about the importance of working with rather than struggling against whatever we are finding unacceptable in ourselves and in the world. Pema talks about how when we think in terms of problems and solutions we are making an enemy and that is not the relationship that will bring an end to suffering. 

I was reminded of how in the Church of Science of Mind, where a friend of mine is a minister, there is a phrase they use when coming upon what might be considered a problem: ‘There is nothing wrong here.’ That’s a very fun phrase to play with every time something unsettling happens, but all of us can think of situations where saying such a thing would make no sense at all. For example, if someone is abusing a child, imagine saying ‘There is nothing wrong here.’ Really? It looks VERY wrong to me, and it makes me angry and I want to haul that abuser off and… 

But if we go deeper into it, we can see that making this person the enemy or even this action the enemy is not going to change anything. Bringing a more open compassionate space and a clarity of mind that is not judging but seeing all of what is going on — all the causes and conditions, all the pain within the abuser as well as the one being abused — creates a safe space for the person doing the abusing to let down their rigid defensive posture and feel he or she can look at the whole of what is going on. In class someone brought up dealing with someone who is addicted. Again, how much more helpful it is provide a loving non-judgmental but very aware space for that person to be able to let down his or her defenses and gain some clarity. Since real change comes from deep within, providing a safe space for that inner exploration is infinitely more useful than acting out in anger, making demands, making an enemy, seeking a solution to a problem.

Pema ends with: “The approach we are suggesting is more groundless…” And that reminded me of what Tempel Smith said at the daylong retreat about how with our meditation and mindfulness practice we are developing the ability to function well in the state of groundlessness we find ourselves in. For those of us who are always searching for solid ground, this is an alarming statement. But true! In this experience of life there is nothing solid, unchanging that we can stand on and make everything stop and be predictable. Instead we have better success and lots more joy if we learn how to live in this groundless state. Think of Alice as she falls down the rabbit hole finding interest in all she encounters even as she doesn’t know where this journey will take her. Isn’t that how life is? We pretend we know what will happen based on our plans and informed calculations, but then the unexpected happens and we are thrown for a loop. Why? Because we believed we were standing on solid ground, but in fact the reality of our experience is much more groundless than that. So maybe we are learning how to float in space or even fly?

First Foundation of Mindfulness – Review & a Few More Thoughts

We have completed our exploration of the Buddha’s First Foundation of Mindfulness, focusing in turn on the breath, postures, contemplation on the body, elements and death.

When you pour a concrete foundation, you want it to cure before you start adding more layers. Just so, I want to take the time to review and discuss the First Foundation of Mindfulness before we move on to the Second. If you missed any of the dharma talks within this section, then the links above can take you to where you need to go to ‘fill in the blanks.’

If you are just joining the discussion, you have a ready-made curriculum in the links above. Take your own time to do so in a way that is meaningful for you. You might set aside a period of time every day to read and reflect before or after meditation practice, for example. You can also visit the pages on the right column of the blog for more explanation and basic instruction.

The First Foundation of Mindfulness is one dharma lesson that could be a full life practice on its own. Sensing into physical sensation and knowing that we are sensing in to physical sensation. All that follows is rich and valuable, but only if we have laid this first foundation. You will see as we proceed how each one builds on the last.

What we have learned in this exploration is the basis of vipassana practice. We could go so far as to say that without this First Foundation, we don’t have a vipassana (insight) practice since that is where the original instruction for vipassana bhavana* comes from. So let’s make sure we understand it!

In our most recent class we had a discussion on anything from the previous talks on the First Foundation of Mindfulness that were still unclear, as well as any insights that came to the meditators from the explorations.

We focused a good deal of our discussion on the breath. In this tradition we do not change the breath but focus our awareness on the natural rising and falling of the breath. I had to repeat this several times during the class because even though the meditators practice in this way, most have knowledge of various other trainings, such as yoga or qigong where there are breath exercises that consciously alter the breath for a particular purpose. These are all fine but they are not recommended for the ongoing practice of insight meditation.

In this practice, we are not actively trying to change things to make everything right. Instead we are cultivating a way of being with things as they are. So it is how we relate to causes and conditions in our lives that is our focus. So the breath is as it is, and we cultivate our ability to attend it. This noticing may bring about change in the breath, but we are not actively working to change it. We are not finding fault with the breath for being ‘too shallow,’ a prevalent opinion in our culture. If we sit in an erect but relaxed position, we naturally open the column of the rib cage for the breath to breathe; if we notice and release whatever tension we find, and if we simply sit and know that we are sitting, the breath will be fine. Let the breath live unjudged! It certainly deserves it, as it gives us life and all. Just saying.

One of the meditators mentioned a particular breath practice she has found very calming where you inhale to the count of four, hold the breath for the count of seven, then release the breath to the count of eight. So I had her lead us in this and it was very interesting.

One meditator mentioned that she does a count to match her heart rate, so being led was difficult since our hearts don’t all beat at the same rate. This was a useful observation for any of us wanting to do some of these practices.

I mentioned a qigong instructor named Ken Cohen who provides a series of breath exercises. These various breath practices are perfectly fine and could be valuable. I only want to be clear that they are not a part of the basic practice of insight meditation.

A few minutes of breath practice before meditation could be useful in the process of establishing a personal practice. Without a teacher, a bell, a sangha, a class time, a setting that tells our busy mind ‘Now it’s time to meditate!’ we may need some amount of ritual to transition into our practice, especially at first.

Here is the guiding question to know whether such a practice, or any ritual, is beneficial: “Is this guiding me toward a mindfulness practice or is it potentially a hindrance to it?”

How could a ritual become a hindrance?  I promote what I call a ‘portable practice.’ The beauty of insight meditation is that you can do it anywhere at any time. There is nothing required but the intention to be present and the intention to be compassionate. When we add rituals or objects that we depend on to get us where we want to be, then we are creating conditions that could become hindrances. ‘If I don’t have my (fill in the blank: altar, breath practice, beads, spoken chant, etc.) then I can’t meditate.’ If we set up anything too elaborate, we undermine our ability to practice in say, the airport lounge. If we are dependent on causes and conditions, then we are not centered, grounded in our own experience.


So that was the review, but here are some things to consider that we didn’t cover in any of our previous explorations of the body as the First Foundation of Mindfulness.

The Body Google
Our body is a storehouse of information as well as the vessel in which we are able to function in this world. As we deepen in our ability to sense into the body, we also learn to listen to it in a way that was probably foreign to us.

If we have chronic pain or illness, this listening can help to alleviate physical suffering. With the enhanced awareness, we might notice the conditions around each occurrence. You don’t need advanced training for this, just a willingness to notice. 


For example, if your back ‘goes out’ you can ask what was happening in your life in the days leading up to it? What condition arose? This cause could be a difficult conversation that you had or are dreading having; a challenging deadline that lies ahead or that you failed to meet; a worry over the well being of a loved one; the loss of a job or fear about the future; guilt about the past; or any number of things that cause tension, stress and mental or emotional anguish that quite often will be experienced as physical pain. 

If we learn to listen to the body, then to ask questions of ourselves about what is going on in our lives and in our minds, we can alleviate the pain! If this is an interesting area of exploration for you, I highly recommend the books of Dr. John Sarno, an orthopedic surgeon who began to see the mind-body connection quite clearly in his many patients and has an excellent prescription that is free, except for the price of his paperback book, and easy. Reader, it changed my life! If it can change someone else’s, I hope you will forgive me this bit of promotion. If you know someone who might benefit, speak up. I am ever grateful to my friend who told me about it.

The Aging Body
As we age, mindfulness becomes increasingly valuable to keep us going in health and happiness. We can care for the body best by being mindful of what we are doing with it, by being considerate of its needs and by paying attention where we are going so we don’t trip and fall. 


We can notice if we are being overly cautious or protective, as if the body is fragile. This makes for added tension that in turn is a setup for harming ourselves, getting into pain or avoiding activities that might be healthful. We can notice if we are driving the body too hard. We can notice if this driven quality comes from some fear-based emotion, and is therefore unskillful. We can notice when we have a sense of well being. We can appreciate it without clinging to it, wishing it could stay this way. That in turn causes more tension, and then we lose the sense of well being we have found.

While this is the end of our discussion of the First Foundation of Mindfulness, it is just the beginning of our own internal awareness of how to live mindfully in this human form so that we can best appreciate this fleeting gift of life.


* Vipassana bhavana is Pali for insight meditation. It is the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices, as taught in the the Buddha’s Sattipatthana Sutta (which is what we are currently studying.) The word vipassana is Pali. Passana means seeing or perceiving, and vi means ‘in a special way.’ Bhavana means mental cultivation.

Breath – The First Aspect of the First Foundation of Mindfulness

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.