Mindfulness of Breathing

Practice Instructions:
Mindfulness of Breathing
Excerpt from the teachings of the 2010 Summer Rains Retreat
Held at Karuna Meditation & Yoga Center
1 May through 31 July 2010
Taught by Michael Gregory
Explanation and Instructions
The first four stages of Anapanasati are deeply important. You never get past them in this life. It’s
not like you’ve got to finish stages one and two and you’ve got to get past those so you can get to stages
15 and 16 which is what you’re really aiming for. It’s not like that.
Stages one and two are the most radical things that you’ll ever hear, and it doesn’t sound like it. It
says to breathe in long [breaths], knowing breathing in long; and to breathe in short [breaths], knowing
breathing in short. That’s it. And without someone to share what those words mean, they’re the two
most misunderstood expressions in all of dharma. The first two stages on the way to enlightenment are
knowing breathing in long, knowing breathing in short. That’s directly from the Anapanasati sutra. It’s
completely radical in every way, and it certainly doesn’t sound like it, does it?
What that means to say is, start every single session by being simple. That’s the meaning of those
words, and that’s what’s so radical. “Knowing breathing in long, and knowing breathing in short”, for
practitioners, is code for being simple. Be simply present with what is, with what is happening. What’s
so radical is that you will want to interpret it in every way to suit your perceived needs. If you do this
long enough, you’ll want to interpret it in every way. When I say you’ll want to interpret it, I mean that
you’ll want to think it means this, or it means that, it means anything but being simple.
The way it most often gets convoluted is that people try to control the initial breaths in every
session. People try to think their way through it, like there must be some sort of deeper meaning here.
They think maybe this is pranayama, some sort of breath control. It says ‘long’ and ‘short’, so that must
mean that we have to restrain it or control it in some way. And that’s exactly what it doesn’t mean.
We always use this metaphor of wild horse tied to a stake in the ground. The wild horse represents
your mind, your emotional states. And the stake represents your breath. What we mean is that
everything is being grounded around the breath. The mind will throw up every mental state and every
emotional state to try to do something with it. People want to take different types of breath and try
different things with the breath. There’s a time and place for that, and I sometimes encourage people
to experiment with it. But in the practice of becoming realized, there’s none of that. It’s just being
simple. There’s just being simple – and as it turns out, that will be the most difficult thing for you to do,
to just be simple and not try to adulterate your experience in any way, not try to make it something else.
If you’ve already learned some breath control techniques or pranayama, then you really have a
problem with this. You’re really convinced that there must be some sort of manipulation of the breath
required here, right? That’s just the wild horse running around the stake. And there’ll be a little pride
part of you, too, that wants to do it your way, not the way I’m saying. More wild horse activity. There
are plenty of times and places in your life for creativity and blazing your own trail. This isn’t one of those
times or places. There are times to follow instructions because if you alter the instructions you won’t
get the result. So follow the instructions in this particular situation. Follow the instructions as they are.
So in these stages, the phrasing is shorthand for “allow the breath to manifest without doing
anything else.” Don’t think about anything else, don’t feel anything else. Just feel the breath in its
different varieties, long and short. Just be simple. It’s normal to convolute it and try to make it harder.
We have difficulty just being simple. When I say ‘be simple’, do you know what I mean? I mean not
tinkering in any way, shape or form. Anything else is the horse running around the stake.
I’ll say it again: you just feel the breath. Anything else is the horse running around the stake. You
may not get past the first two stages. We’re not on a time clock here; you only go to the next stage
when you get a good experience of the previous one. Stages one and two go together, practiced as one.
Know the breath as it is. Don’t adjust, don’t manipulate. Just let go into simplicity. It’s a relaxing, a
letting go into simplicity. If you can’t do that, you can’t do any of the other practices. You’re not ready.
But it’s not me telling you you’re not ready. You need to know that you’re not ready to go on yet; it has
to come from the inside. You acknowledge that you are convoluting and trying to do something during
these first two processes. Maybe you still look at them as for beginners or something like that, because
they’re the first two. There could be some competitiveness there, with yourself or others. You might
think you should be past this point, because of how long you’ve been doing the practice.
That’s not correct; you never “get past” being simple. In fact, during your session if you lose the
simplicity, return to stage one/two. This is a letting go.
Now, what’s in the way? Sankhara. This is a Sanskrit word that means ‘formations’. Sometimes
you’ll see it spelled ‘samkhara’. It’s a very, very important term. In Tibetan, the word is bakchak. What
we mean by ‘formation’ is that throughout your entire existence certain things have been present. For
example, there’s an underlying confusion that has always been present, from beginningless time there
has been an underlying confusion that you are separate from your experience. So that’s the underlying
aspect of all formations of your life. Consider whether that’s true. In every part of your existence, the
underlying formation is that you are separate from your experience. Is that true?
When I say ‘sankhara’, I’m talking about how your experience has been formed, how it is being
formed, how it will be formed. The underlying aspect is always confusion with regard to appearances.
Now even from this very beginning, I would like you to feel just how different that is from the first two
stages of Anapanasati, in which we’re saying ‘Be simple.’ I would like you to start drawing connections
about where this is headed.
When I say ‘simplify’, we’re easing into and relaxing our relationship to sankhara, right from the very
beginning. That’s what this is about. Normally, we’re very attached with regard to our formations, very
clinging, very grasping. So there’s the separation of myself and others, and the subsequent thought and
feeling processes that arise, emotional processes that arise immediately. I want you to see the need for
relaxing and being simple here. It takes on a whole new understanding.
Don’t forget that the reason we’re relaxing from the formations is because they’re based on this
very painful confusion that we’re separate from our experience. So that’s what it is that we’re relaxing
away from, or you might say relaxing into. So it’s not just some simple, superficial knowing breathing in
long or knowing breathing in short. There’s something deeper going on here. You’re relaxing away from
Now the way sankhara manifests is through repetitive behaviors in our existence. It is our
understanding that you have now, through these repetitive behaviors, knotted your body up. Through
repetitive performance of the same reactions, your muscles, your skeletal structure, everything has
become contorted; it’s not in its natural state. It’s natural state is to be at ease, free of tension, free of
confusion. Sankhara is not your natural state. These are heavily confused formations. The confusion is
this separateness, that I’m separate from my experience. All suffering starts there. Every suffering
you’ve ever experienced in this life, are experiencing now or will ever experience is this one: I am
somehow separate from my experience.
For example, if you’re uncomfortably cold or warm right now, it’s not that there is just tactile
sensation of temperature. There is cold (or hot) and then there is aversion. Do you see that? It’s
happening right now for many of you. You’re separate from the experience; you assign some outside
agent as the cause and you’re against that, you want it to stop or be different. It’s “out there”. You
think you would be happier and suffer less if you had a different experience that the one you’re
currently experiencing. If I could just acquire a new experience I would be happier, just adjusting to get
a better temperature range. This carries over, of course, to the right relationship, the right amount of
money, the right kind of clothing. How far away are you right now from stages one and two, from being
simple with what’s being experienced?
You see what simplicity is – just an ease of being, regardless of external circumstances. What you’re
experiencing when you’re feeling too cold or too hot is your relationship to experience. That’s a huge
thing to understand. It tells you that if you want to be happy, you should adjust your relationship to
your experience.
But we first start off by just recognizing one thing in this practice – simplicity. Even as we try to sit
here and just let go, let the natural state arise, we try to control or manipulate or manifest the
experience in some way. Do you see that? It happens right from the very beginning. That’s what this
practice points out. It’s encouraging you to let go. In this practice, we’re not trying to gain anything.
We’re not trying to gain simplicity. You could say that you’re trying to return to your natural state,
which is simplicity. And that is done by letting go of your attachments to formation, to sankhara. You
don’t gain anything; you let go.
So enlightenment is always talked about in this way, that you don’t get enlightenment. You remove
these two obscurations and then enlightenment shines. You don’t get enlightened; you remove
confusion obstacles and mental affliction obstacles. So you’re not being assigned a new task, to get
enlightened or to get realized. You’re here to let go of these two obstacles, and then your natural state
shows itself.
So what are we letting go of particularly? Sankhara, or attachment to these formations which have
always begun with the idea that I’m separate from you, from my relationship to you, always trying to
modify, adjust. In everything I do, I’m constantly tinkering; I’m always manufacturing, adulterating,
ornamenting my reality. When we talk about letting go, we’re talking about finding out what reality is
like when we don’t manufacture it, what we’re like when we don’t ornament or adorning existence. Do
you know internally what that’s like?
The instructions are shorthand, code words, for ‘be simple; don’t do anything’. It’s actually very,
very rich to not manufacture anything about what’s happening. We find out what experience is like,
naturally. It’s not ‘my’ experience; do you see that? That assigning it as ‘mine’ is sankhara. How about
letting go of that formation, too. If there’s a sense of ‘me’ in there, that’s not simplicity. If there’s a
sense of ‘my experience’ then that’s not simple; that’s separation. That’s duality. There’s me, and then
there’s my experience.
So now we’re cutting into this further. If it feels like it’s your breath, that’s not it. You’re not ready
to move on to stage three. And of course, all the adjustments that were previously made were based on
that one, me and my experience. Simplicity has to do with letting go, letting go, letting go, more and
more deeply. There’s no control, there’s no restraint, there’s nothing going on there. This is a radical
departure. There’s not even a sense of ownership of the experience, no possessing agent.
If you can get stages one and two, you don’t need the other 14 stages. This would be enough, right
How does this tie in with metta practice? Well, what is the highest happiness? Awakening. So how
would that be accomplished? By letting go. So in fact, these stages of Anapanasati practice are no
different than metta practice. It’s the accomplishment of the immeasurable metta. This makes your
love impartial, because what makes love partial is your involvement in it. In that context, love is a
possession. I have it, I control it and I give it to you. That’s what makes love partial and biased. That
whole attitude implies an agenda in giving love to others.
Comments About Guided Meditations
I’m going to be leading you through a guided meditation, and the point is not that you just do it, but
also pay attention to it because this will be your practice for the remaining sessions on your own. We do
one guided meditation session just to give you the rhythm. That’s the whole point. Some people have
asked me to record the guided meditations so they can download them, and hit the play button and
have every session be a guided meditation. But you’ll never develop confidence that way, you’ll never
develop your own rhythm, and every guided meditation is faulty. Here’s why: they never go along with
the individual’s experience. It’s impossible. It can’t happen that I could lead you through your own
experience. So this is just to give you an idea of how it works.
Guided Meditation on Mindfulness of Breathing
Take the proper posture, with the spine upright. You’re breathing through the nose, if possible. If
you’re sick, you can breathe through the mouth until the nose clears. Eyes are gently closed in this
practice; lips are slightly parted. That’s useful because it stops your mouth from drying out. The tip of
the tongue is resting on the top of the palate, just behind the teeth, and that keeps you from salivating
during the practice.
Re-check in now. Metta is the primary conditioner for concentration, so see if you can bring up a
little bit of those feelings again, and that will make the practice much easier. We’re mixing your
attention with your intention. I’m very much asking “why are you here? Who benefits?” We’re framing
the experience, vastly. If you could put a frame around all possible universes, the canvas inside it is your
mind, and the brushstrokes are metta.
So taking an intentional, purposeful posture, let’s be here now and really show up, as if your
presence counts. Here you are, sitting upright and unapologetic.
Feel yourself, from the base of the spine. Bring your attention to the base of the spine and invoke,
“May there be energy.” We need energy. “May there be energy”, and feel it, with a sense of showing
up, of being here as if you count. Your relationship counts, a sense of purpose.
It’s often good to take a few long, deep, slow breaths, feeling the abdomen rise… and fall… They are
a reminder that you’re going to connect to the breathing. Allow the deep in-breaths to be kind of like an
internal massage, so when you expand the torso, the chest, the longer exhalations are a chance to relax,
soften, keep the energy balanced and harmonized. You’ll have to lightly adjust this throughout the
session, because you don’t want too much energy, either.
This time, as you breathe in, feel the energy go up and down. As you exhale, feel it come up, but
not too strongly. It starts off mildly. Then exhale a little more strongly.
Then, stop controlling the breath completely and just allow your breath to return to normal.
If you’re in any physical pain at any time during the session, you can move to a chair.
[Short pause]
Now, let’s take a moment to see how you’re relating to what’s happening. How are you relating
already, at this early point? Are you eager, or resistant, hesitant? Maybe you’re unsure or worried,
maybe you’re delighted, maybe just spacious. Take a look. How are you relating to what’s happening?
There’s what’s happening, and then there’s your relationship to it.
Just look to see if there’s any tension connected to this relating to what you’re about to do.
Dispassionately, just see. Then as you exhale, see if you can soften and relax the tension in the
relationship. We’re not trying to relax the thoughts, but our relationship to them.
Now, look into your body and I’d like you to feel your way through the body. See if there are any
obvious places where you can soften the relationship. Maybe the muscles of the face… It might be
useful to drop the mouth open lightly, let the muscles hang off the bones of the face. It could be helpful
to soften the shoulder blades – not the muscles, but the relationship to them. The chest… It might be
possible to soften the belly and just let it hang forward, forward and down. It might be possible just a
little bit to soften the muscles of the legs, your butt…
The body relaxes but the mind remains alert. The body is sometimes referred to as being like a
sleeping baby, but the mind is alert.
And then within your body, as part of your body, become aware of your breathing, of how your
body is experiencing breathing. The very first and very important step in the sixteen stages of
mindfulness of breathing is to start becoming aware of the breathing as it actually is, without trying to
control or restrain it, entering into the world of your breathing in a very simple way. This means you
have no agenda beyond being present. You’re not judging the breathing. It’s just very simple, very easy
knowing, feeling what is happening in the body as you breathe in… as you breathe out…
[Short pause]
Because most minds are not content, this first step is very important training. Just learning how to
relax, and how to let go of all the relational pressures and tensions and compulsions in the mind that
want to take you away from the simplicity of feeling the breathing.
So you notice that the mind wanders off in thought, or you’re relating to the breathing in some way
that’s unnecessary to the breathing. See if you can relax that thinking mind. See if there are any
contractions in the mind that can be softened so the mind becomes more open and porous. It’s not just
forcing ourselves to be with our breath. See if you can soften anything that makes it difficult to be with
the breathing. See if some part of your mind can relax, and soften into that relaxing.
Again and again, reacquaint yourself with the world of breathing… and again… and again.
[Short pause]
See if you can be intent on focusing on the breathing without straining, intent but spacious,
relaxed… allowing the experience of breathing to fill the awareness. Nothing needs to happen. Just
feel whatever happens; just experience the breathing, the way in which the body moves, the way in
which the inhalations feel differently than the exhalations, just exploring, in a way, exploring the shifting
sensations of contraction and expansion… pressure, the release of pressure… fluctuating
temperatures… tinglings… vibrations… qualia of hardness and softness… mindful of body.
[Short pause]
Again and again, letting go and softening… relaxing… opening into the experience of breathing.
[Short pause]
Letting go of resistance… distraction… tension… in the shoulders, the belly.
[Short pause]
Keeping the mind soft, letting the inhalation of the in-breath be experienced a little differently, all
the way through the inhalation. Noticing that the beginning of the exhalation is a little different than
the end of the exhalation.
Softening the mind… relaxing… but still having a sense of purpose or intention to stay connected to
the breathing… aiming to be very simple… just being simple with the breath… what the breath is
actually like… and maybe becoming aware of how it changes over time.
[Short pause]
Letting all things come, and all things go, unimpeded.
There is what is happening, and then there’s our relationship to it. Look at what’s happening,
without judgment, including your awareness. Look to see if there’s any difficulty. What’s your
relationship to that difficulty? See if you can soften and relax that relationship.
So if physical discomfort is a distraction, and your relationship is getting intense, maybe once or
twice in a session you can shift your posture when you’re first beginning. Then re-establish your
attention on the breathing.
Perhaps there’s a way of letting go into the breathing, softening, easing into it again and again, just
being at ease with each breath.
This is how your day should be spent: a day of loving kindness, a day of metta, and a day of ease,
nourishing these wholesome qualities and avoiding unwholesome qualities, not poisoning the
atmosphere of your mind with busyness, reading, listening to music. Just take it easy, being with
yourself for the day in a loving, gentle way. Being with all that arises, in that same loving, gentle way.
Beginning to gain confidence that this could be your life, a life of ease and gentleness, love and metta.
You are indeed empowered and in control of the situation. Notice how little suffering is taking place
when everything is just as it is. It’s a wise relaxation and this is all coming from the inside right now, a
wise ease. There’s really no need for anything to be different in this life. Peaceful, safe, well, wellbeing. No need to adorn this perfect situation. In every breath again and again we’re discovering the
preciousness of this situation, this birth, this life… at ease.
Please bring your hands together in namaste, and gently bow forward, respecting mindfulness of
[End of Guided Meditation Session]
Go through the day, in post-meditation, with about a quarter of the attention still on feeling each inbreath and feeling each out-breath. It’s peripheral awareness, so you’re able to walk around, able to
eat, able to manifest in existence, but still feeling breathing in, still feeling breathing out. It’s just the
anchor through the day, the medium of expression through the body.
It’s very different than cerebral living, that disembodiment. Do you feel the difference? Compare
the difference right now. Do you feel what it’s like to feel within, vs. thinking about how you feel? It’s
different. This allows the thinking process to be even-keeled, the emotive process to be even-keeled. It
allows for full expression of existence and it’s something that can’t happen if you’re cut off, severed, just
living in the little box of your cranium.
See if you can continue this, even with movement. You’re not going to be perfect at it in the
beginning. It’s an acquired skill; it takes time. But even as you get up and start to stretch, you’re still
aware of the feeling, but then when you start to move, when you’re first training, almost immediately
you go right out of your body and into your head. So be careful. And come back non-judgmentally,
again and again, into your body.
It’s vital right now that you don’t have a choppy practice where you’re trying hard in session, and
then as soon as the bell rings you let it all go. When you leave here, try to keep it going, and when you
lose it, come back again and again. Re-discover your breath throughout the day like that. Put it all
together so you almost get a feeling that there’s no difference between meditation and postmeditation. That’s the idea.
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