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Meditation with the Anapanasati Sutta

The previous article, Concentration and Insight, was about the skill of concentrating or remaining attentive in meditation. This leads naturally to the question: What do you pay attention to? [Acknowledgements and thanks to Thanissaro Bhikkhu.]

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Following on from my previous article Concentration and Insight, the next obvious question is: What do you concentrate on? The point of attention most discussed in the Pali Canon Suttas is the breath, particularly in one of the suttas called 'Anapanasati' which means mindfulness of breathing in and out.

The Anapanasati Sutta

The Anapanasati sutta is probably the most detailed set of meditation instructions in the Pali Canon. At its core, it is a set of 16 meditation activities, fourteen of which 'one trains oneself' to do. These 14 activities divide up into four 'foundations of mindfulness', or in Thanissaro Bhikkhu's phrase 'four frames of reference'.

To start with, the meditator is just aware of the breath in the present moment:

The meditator goes to a quiet place and sits down holding his body erect and keeping mindfulness to the fore. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out. ['his' to be read as 'his/her' - in many suttas the Buddha is addressing male monks only, but he makes it clear in many places that what he says is for everybody, female and male, layperson and monk.]

Next, the meditator uses 'evaluation' to discern variations in the breath (for more on 'evaluation' see below):

Breathing in long, he discerns that he is breathing in long; or breathing out long, he discerns that he is breathing out long. Or breathing in short, he discerns that he is breathing in short; or breathing out short, he discerns that he is breathing out short.

Then there are the first two of the 14 steps 'one trains oneself' to do, and they are concerned with the body as a frame of reference, and to my mind summarise what I mean on this site by 'body-based' meditation:

-- The meditator trains himself to breathe in sensitive to the entire body, and to breathe out sensitive to the entire body

-- The meditator trains himself to breathe in calming bodily processes, and to breathe out calming bodily processes.

The translation here is Thanissaro Bhikkhu's, and it is an exact translation of the Pali. I have read many different translations of these two, many of which seem to me quite convoluted. One of the problems is that the Commentaries insist that the 'entire body' does not mean the entire body, but something like a 'body of breath', which I can see no justification for. I am convinced myself that the Buddha, or at least the authors of this part of the Pali Canon, meant exactly what is said: breathing sensitive to the whole body, and in so doing calming bodily activity. I describe how I personally do this in another article on this site. The steps continue:

-- The meditator trains himself to breathe in sensitive to joy, and to breathe out sensitive to joy. He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to pleasure and breathe out sensitive to pleasure. [the Pali word piti is often translated as 'rapture', which again is too high-octane and Commentarial - simple 'joy' is much nearer the mark.]

Another interesting point is that the Pali Canon states unequivocally that none of the four 'frames of reference' (body, feelings, mind, mental qualities) are better than any others, and in fact that you only need to give your attention to one of them to attain the goal. The simile is that of a pile of earth at a four-way cross-roads. You can approach the pile of earth from any of the four roads, and furthermore you can clear the pile of earth completely from that one road.

In practise, of course, it is artificial to separate them out, and I have found that in giving myself to one 'frame of reference' (I choose the body) then automatically I am practising within the other three frames of reference - my feelings, my mind as it is in itself, and the natural law the mind follows (the 'dharma' in the sense of natural law, the way things are). So from the body-based start of the meditation process, the steps continue:

The meditator trains himself to breathe in sensitive to mental processes, and to breathe out sensitive to mental processes. He trains himself to breathe in calming mental processes and to breathe out calming mental processes. He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to the mind, and to breathe out sensitive to the mind... and so on.

Focusing and vicara

The concept of 'evaluation' is Thanissaro Bhikkhu's translation of the Pali word vicara, and is an integral part of the Buddha's prescription for the meditation he advocates, at least for the first stage of it (the first jhana - note that I use the word jhana here as in the Pali Canon, not the high-octane wham-bam jhana of the Commentaries):

The meditator enters and remains in the first jhana: joy and pleasure born from centeredness, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation. He permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with the joy and pleasure born from centeredness, so that nothing of his entire body is unpervaded by them.

It is often said that you must not think in meditation - I write about this attitude elsewhere on this site. Here I want to point out that the Buddha clearly says that at least in the first stage of meditation it is healthy to think. And he suggests two modes of thought: vitakka, which can be translated as 'directed thought' or 'reflection'; and vicara which is like 'evaluation'. It seems to me that what the Buddha meant by 'evaluating' your experience as you have it is very similar to Focusing. When I first understood how the concept of Focusing can apply to my meditation process, I immediately thought 'this is surely what the Buddha meant by vicara'.


Anyway, back to the ideas of the Anapanasati Sutta: For true insight, I need a steady and clear mind. So the primary aim in my meditation is first to bring this about, using the breath as it is and as it affects my body. The idea is not to control the breath too much, but to take natural breaths in such a way that is comfortable, so that the mind is happy to stay there.

I find I need to experiment to get comfortable (evaluation, Focusing); often what I think of as 'natural breath' is in fact a set way of breathing, and by changing it a bit I get to a more 'natural breath'. Two particularly fruitful ways of experimenting with the breath to get it comfortable and natural are:

(1) to imagine the air entering the body in other ways than through the nose/mouth and throat - for instance, through the pelvic floor, or in and out through the whole torso, like a sponge;

(2) to accentuate the out-breath, either by forcing the air out more than usual (using the intercostal, or rib, muscles), sucking the stomach back in, or simply holding the breath after expiration a little more than normal. This then encourages the in-breath to be fuller, and often feeling more natural.

Having the mind at ease, riding on the breath, is both restful and enjoyable. It is both immensely satisfactory as it is, and if there is somewhere to go in meditation (like the jhanas) then this is the way to get there.

However, as anyone who has practised any type of meditation for five minutes knows, things are never this smooth. The mind jumps around, thinks extraneous thoughts, makes you drowsy - in short, for some meditation sittings you are lucky if you can focus on one breath out of a hundred.

So what do you do? Ajahn Lee (a Thai Buddhist teacher in the Forest Tradition) gave this analogy: You are like a hunter-gatherer of old, whose true home is around the fire with your family. But, in order to maintain this, you need to go away from the hearth and the home from time to time to forage. Foraging is not what you want to do, but it is necessary to do it in order to maintain the home.

In a like manner, at ease riding on the breath is our 'home', where we want to be in meditation; but this is not always possible, and so we need to go foraging. There are many ways of 'foraging', but the essence is to deal with the distraction in as skillful manner as possible, and learn from it in so doing. As Jason Siff says, there is nothing thrown up by the mind that cannot be used as a learning experience to further our meditation skills. Here are a few examples of foraging:

So I am focusing on my breath - a thought or sensation comes to distract me - I deal with it with the primary aim of having a focused mind at ease in the breath. That means initially can I just ignore it? If so, I do so. If not, I let myself be aware of it, in an open, even welcoming way. Perhaps I examine what the pain or thought is, just being aware of it without agenda, and what is around it, in no particular hurry - I am quite happy to let the rest of the meditation sitting be taken up with this thought or sensation; I can go back to the breath in my next sitting.

I may see what effect the emotion or thought is having on my body. Emotions can be very body-centered. Think of our language - when we are nervous, we have butterflies in the stomach; when we are sad we have a lump in the throat; and so on. Bringing my emotion or thought into my body can be interesting and educational.

If the strength of the distraction or pain is great, I may need to go 'nose to nose with it' (John Kabat-Zinn's phrase), really focus on it, immerse myself in the raw sensations. Very often, what seems initially like a solid wall of pain will break up into shimmering patterns of energy if I focus on it and sink into it, as it were; the solidity vanishes.

If there is too much going on to allow focus on the breath at all, then I may need to do something 'completely different', as Monty Python would say. Being aware of my body, other than the breath, is a good place to start; either with a whole sense of body (the body as it is, in and of itself, as the Pali Canon Suttas say), or else systematically focusing on parts of it, in some kind of order. Thanissaro suggests a 'bones scan' where you become aware of each bone of your body in a prearranged sequence; or Goenka teaches a systematic body scan, where your attention moves through the body in cross-sections, rather like a real medical scan. I write about how I do this elsewhere on this site. After ignoring the breath for a while, and focusing on something else, sometimes when I go back to it I become much more at home with it.

Or I may 'forage' by becoming aware of my surroundings - the body in space, listening to the sounds around me brings me a sense of space in which I exist, both physical and mental. Buddhists often speak of 'spacious mind', in which all my usual distractions and mental clingings still exist, but are contained in a 'spacious' consciousness that has room for much else, so that they do not crowd me out and take up too much of my energy.

So in this way, I am gradually led to a deepening focus on my breath. It does not happen quickly, or evenly, and the journey has many side roads; but I can learn from them all, and the qualities I need of alertness, mindfulness and effort in order to support my concentration develop in a natural and harmonious way.

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