Mindfulness of Breathing

By the Lake on a Clear Day“Life is fragile, delicate, and precarious. The life of sentient beings is the space between inhalation and exhalation.” Time is short. (Adapted from the Visuddhimagga)

Benefits of Good Breathing

A healthy breath leads to good health of the body. The breath is part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which also promotes a slower heart beat and a slower respiratory rate. Most PNS actions are automatic (involuntary); however, some such as breathing, work together with the conscious mind. When the breath is longer, slower, and relaxed, it helps remove anxiety. Such a breath can allow one to more readily control emotions and thoughts, and enable one to enter into deeper states of consciousness.

Other benefits of good breathing include:

  • Improved quality of life and sleep
  • Reduced stress and depression
  • Increased energy and concentration
  • Increased blood circulation to the brain
  • Improved brain functioning
  • Stimulation of endorphins (cause a sense of well-being, etc.) and dopamine (regulates movement and emotional response, etc.).

Correct Posture

Correct posture is an integral part of correct breathing and also leads to better health. Poor posture causes restricted and shallow breathing, and a variety of other problems – such as inhibiting blood flow to and from the heart, stressing the lower back, and adding pressure to the kidneys and stomach. (Interested readers may wish to visit www.breathing.com)

Six Types of Breathing

Six types of breathing exist (the last three are abnormal and undesirable):

  1. Eupnea – is normal, quiet breathing at a rate of 12 to 20 breaths per minute in adults
  2. Nose (nasal) breathing – increases circulation and blood oxygen; slows breathing rate; and improves lung volumes (when compared with mouth breathing)
  3. Diaphragmatic (abdominal, belly, or deep breathing) – is breathing done by contracting the diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the chest cavity and stomach cavity. Air enters the lungs and the belly expands during this type of breathing.
  4. Tachypnea (polypnea) – is very fast breathing; an abnormally rapid rate of breathing (more than 20 breaths per minute in adults)
  5. Dyspnea – is difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath; typically associated with some form of heart or lung disease (also known as air hunger)
  6. Apnea – is temporary absence of spontaneous respiration; cessation of breathing (sleep apnea is where there are repeated episodes of temporary suspension of breathing during sleep)

Tranquility and Insight

Calm and insight lie at the core of Buddhist practice.

Calm (samatha) is the pacifying and stabling of mental thoughts and emotions. It is the practice (bhavana) of calming the mind (citta) and its fabrications or formations (sankhara). This is achieved by practicing single-pointed meditation, most commonly through mindfulness of breathing. (Samatha is common to all Buddhist traditions.)

Insight (vipassana) is mental contemplation through right view and knowledge. Mindfulness of breathing, as well as of thoughts and feelings, helps to bring intuitive insight into the true nature of reality (which is suffering, egolessness, and impermanence). Vipassana, then, involves clear seeing or special insight.

After a person has mastered samatha and vipassana, they would be ready for more intense meditation, such as samadhi. Samadhi is concentration or one-pointed meditation and involves intense focusing of consciousness. It brings about the four dhyanas, meaning absorptions. (The Buddha refers to samadhi in the eighth step of the eightfold path.) Dhyana is jhana in Pali.

Anapana-Smrti (Anapana-sati)

Samatha practice, then, usually begins with a focus on the breath called anapana-smrti or anapana-sati. As thoughts arise, they are observed, and released or allowed to pass. In time, the mind becomes quieter.

Anapana refers to inhalation and exhalation. Smrti (sati) refers to mindfulness, that is, developing a consciousness of what is around you and within you – whether seated in meditation, or going about one’s life. (This is the type of meditation that the Buddha engaged in under the bodhi tree, and is involved in the seventh step of the eightfold path.)

Four Bases of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is focusing the mind on something. Four bases of mindfulness are listed as follows:

  1. Body – contemplation of the physical body (kaya)
  2. Sensations – contemplation of feeling (vedana)
  3. Mind – contemplation of the mind (citta)
  4. Dharmas – contemplation of mental objects (Dharma)

Mindfulness of the body: Breathe in and out, and . . .

  1. Discern the in and out breathing.
  2. Discern long or short breaths.
  3. Experience the whole body.
  4. Calm bodily fabrications (formations).

Mindfulness of feeling (sensations): Breathe in and out, and . . .

  1. Be sensitive to rapture.
  2. Be sensitive to pleasure.
  3. Be sensitive to mental fabrication.
  4. Calm mental fabrication.

Mindfulness of the mind: Breathe in and out, and . . .

  1. Be sensitive to the mind.
  2. Satisfy the mind.
  3. Steady the mind.
  4. Release the mind.

Mindfulness of mental objects (Dharmas): Breathe in and out, and . . .

  1. Dwell on impermanence.
  2. Dwell on dispassion.
  3. Dwell on cessation.
  4. Dwell on relinquishment.

Finally, we can be mindful of the breath in all situations and conditions of life (such as upon waking up, before meals, after meals, waiting, etc.) – in other words, mindful while standing, walking, sitting, lying down, and so forth. This takes practice and persistence; however, the effort will be rewarded in due time.

The Buddha stated: “This is the only path (ekayanomaggo), O Bhikkhus, for the sake of the purity of sentient beings, the deliverance from sorrow and lamentation, the extinction of pain and grief, the attainment of the Noble Path, the realization of Nirvana, the cessation of suffering – this is the Four Foundations of Mindfulness” (From Paravahera Vajiranana Mahathera, “Buddhist meditation in Theory and Practice”, Buddhist Missionary Society, Kuala Lumpur, 1975).

Important Writings

Mindfulness of breathing is covered in several important writings. These include:

  1. The Anapanasati Sutta (Pali) or Anapanasmrti Sutra (Sanskrit), “Breath-Mindfulness Discourse,” is a teaching that details the Buddha’s instruction on using awareness of the breath (anapana) as an initial focus for meditation.
  2. The Satipatthana Sutta, “Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness”, is the most important text on both vipassana (insight meditation) and samadhi (concentration meditation).
  3. The Visuddhimagga, an important work in Theravada Buddhism, was written in the fifth century by Buddhaghosa. The book organizes the Buddha’s teachings from the Pali Canon, including those on meditation, into a comprehensive path leading to the final Buddhist goal of Nirvana. (The work is available online.)

Source: These notes were originally based on (but then added to) an English Buddhist talk entitled “Don’t Forget to Breathe!” which covered the importance of the breath given by Venerable Hui Feng, the Deputy Abbot of the Foguangshan Buddhist Order, at Chung Tian Temple (1034 Underwood Rd, Priestdale, Queensland, 4127, Australia) on August 2, 2014 (2-3:30 pm).

Alexander Peck

  • For a PDF copy, click Mindfulness of Breathing
  • For an MS Word copy, click Mindfulness of Breathing
  • For a PDF copy of a talk given by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, covering the four bases of mindfulness (16 aspects), click 101002_The_Breath_All_the_Way.
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