Mindfulness Of Breathing (Anapanasati) Meditation

Mindfulness of breathing is the main practice for developing concentration and mindfulness by narrowing the focus to a single object. It is obvious to anyone who meditates that the mind is always looking out for something to latch on, always craving or rejecting something. This meditation helps to settle the mind by weakening the “hindrances” and brings about a refined level of focus, alertness, and concentration beyond the ordinary state.

As soon as you start to meditate you will be surprised at how poor your concentration is – you can barely stay attentive for a few seconds! And the simple act of paying attention on the breath becomes extremely challenging. Don’t worry, it’s not just you – it’s the same for everyone. And some beginners just find it impossible to focus on the breath, so they soon give up. This is because they jump straight into the deep end.

Most people when they learn to meditate were just told to focus on the breath. This is what I meant by “jumping into the deep end” – because the breath is very subtle and it is hard for a beginner to detect it. They would soon get lost in thoughts. Fortunately, there is a gradual method that will make it easier. This method will help you build strong a foundation at each stage with realistic and achievable outcome. Thus, you will enjoy the meditation more and will make steady progress.

Rather than telling you just to focus on the breath, this method has four smaller stages prior to full-sustained attention on the breath, each adding an incremental level in concentration and mindfulness. Hence, we have a total of five stages in this method of Mindfulness of Breathing.

It is very important that you understand the method clearly before you begin, otherwise you may start to wonder or have doubt during your practice. Thus, I endeavour to provide very detailed explanation of the technique at each stage, even at the risk of repeating myself.

It is important that you to adhere strictly to the instructions below. Please do not mix with your what you have been doing or what you have read elsewhere. This method is structured to work exactly as prescribed below. You will not get good results if you mix with other techniques. So forget all that you have known and empty your mind before you begin this practice.

Stage 1 – Mindfulness with Labelling

You should begin the meditation with the Preliminary stage as described earlier and then direct your mind on the breath. This is how you do it:

How to observe the breath

Narrow your focus to just the areas of the upper lip and the entrances of the nostrils. As the natural breath goes in and out, you will feel the sensation of air somewhere in that area. Note the spot where you felt the sensation and just focus your attention there and observe the breath as it passes over that area. Do not move your attention to other areas.

Just as a gatekeeper is alert and mindful of anyone passing the gate, you have to try to be mindful of every breath passing over this spot. Also, a gatekeeper only notices who goes in and out of the gate and does not follow them, you are paying attention to the breath at one location, and not following it in or out beyond that spot. One of my teachers used to tell me I should observe the breath like the way someone sawing a piece of wood – one doesn’t look at the saw or the wood, but the point of contact between the two. In the same way, when you observe the breath you should not only focus on the breath or the area of the upper lip, but the contact the breath makes with the skin on the upper lip.

In the beginning, you may not feel the touch sensation of the breath on your upper lip area. It does not matter. You must wait patiently at this spot until you can feel it. If you cannot feel the physical sensation of the breath, do not try to create it (such as by forcing the breath or imagining it) or searching around for it. And you must not control or interfere with the breath in any way. You are just paying attention to the natural breath, that’s all. It does not matter if the breath is long or short, shallow or deep, fine or course, do not try to change it. You have to observe the breath as it is. In this way you are observing reality, moment by moment.

Observe the breath as if you are a scientist observing an experiment—in a relaxed and detached manner. It helps if you do not identify it as ‘my breath’ but regard it as a natural phenomenon. Feel the breath as if you are feeling it for the first time. You have been breathing every moment of your life, but have you ever observed it closely? You will be surprised what you’ll discover about the breath.

Pay close attention to the breath, without turning away, going to a blank space, thinking, or imagining.

Notice when your attention has wandered off to other things – just gently bring it back to the breath, noticing any annoyances that may arise in the mind and let go of them. Try not to get involve in trains of thoughts. Intent on directing your attention back to the breath as soon as your mind starts to wander, as it would be much harder to get back to the breath if you start indulging in thoughts. Your mind will try to trick you into thinking, so you’re best try to pay no importance whatsoever to any thoughts that arise in your mind during your meditation. View all thoughts as distractions, and it is useful to tell yourself that before you even begin the meditation.

However, no matter how much you try, you will be distracted by thoughts at some stage. When this happens do not feel frustrated or discouraged. The fact you recognized it at all is a good indication of your mindfulness. Be patient with yourself, and be open and accepting of your distractions, knowing that with continued practice your mind will wander less. Being frustrated will only make it worse – as all types of aversion are forms of “hindrances” (obstacles) in meditation. This way, you are training not only your mindfulness and concentration but you are also developing your patience and acceptance of the way things are. The last attribute is also an important component for insight meditation.

The labelling

If you’re new to meditation you might find your mind gets distracted very easily, that it is hard to stay focused on the breath for more than a couple of seconds even. Thus, at this stage we use labelling to bolster your weak mindfulness to help you remain focused on the breath. This is rather like using a walking stick for support when your legs are unsteady. This is done by mentally verbalizing the word ‘out’ at the end of each out-breath. Do not say it out loud – say it in your head only. You do not need to label the in-breath.

The remaining stages are only available in the online courses

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Quyen Ngo

Quyen Ngo

Quyen Ngo is a Buddhist studies scholar.​ He has a master’s degree in Buddhist Studies and is an author of a number of books and articles on meditation and Buddhism. He has done numerous meditation retreats around the world.

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Way of Insight founder, Quyen Ngo, has published a book documenting his 43 days meditation retreat in Myanmar. He has created a gradual meditation course aimed at all levels to help you develop your meditation and unleash your silent potential.

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