Part One: First Steps
This part of the book teaches two basic meditation techniques, and  assumes no previous experience of meditation

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Chapter One
Mindfulness of Breathing

FeatherOnThe Breath_small
 
the gift of attention
 
You probably know how it feels when you are trying  to `get through' to someone whose mind is on something else: they  can't or won't give you their attention, and it's a frustrating  experience.  Yet something of that frustration exists in our experience  all the time, for we are rarely able to give our undivided  attention to anything.  Most of us have so many things on our minds  that our attention easily gets dissipated.  Distraction  then becomes a normal part of our lives, a permanent feature of our  consciousness.  We become `distracted from distraction by distraction',  sometimes so side-tracked from our original purposes that we even  lose sight of what is most important and precious to us.  Sometimes  the progress of our life is like one of those dreams in which everything  conspires to prevent us from doing something, in which there is a  frustrating sense that there was something that we really wanted  to do - but we cannot remember what it is.
There is much that can be gained by developing our ability to concentrate.   As we concentrate our attention, we begin to `find ourselves’ - to  uncover something deeper and truer in our nature.  The meditation practice  you are about to learn is an aid to this kind of concentration.   It shows how to relax the mind and focus it on a single object without  conflict.
It is important to realize that we cannot force the mind to  concentrate - at least not for long, and not very effectively.  If  we try forcibly to fix our attention, there will be a reaction from  our emotions that will cause either mental instability or dullness.   Real concentration of mind depends on our intellectual and emotional  faculties being in harmony, whereas - in most people - these faculties  often operate disconnected from one other.  We can easily think about  something without knowing what we feel, or just thoughtlessly go along  with our emotions.  This state of mental imbalance separates us from  a fuller experience of ourselves, and so we can never fully concentrate.
We can often see this imbalance in others.  Sometimes we say things  like `Be careful what you say - she’s really not herself this morning',  or, more positively, `I'm sure you'll like old so-and-so - he's  very much himself.'  By considering whether or not this person is `themselves',  we are sensing their inner balance of reason and emotion.  `Being oneself',  in the fullest possible sense, is the primary aim of concentration  meditation.
 
the method of the mindfulness of breathing meditation
 

A beginner should first give attention to this meditation
subject [i.e.  the breath] by counting.  When counting, he should
at first do it slowly (that is, late), as a grain measurer does.
As he does his counting in this way, the in-breaths and out-breaths
become evident to him as they enter in and issue out.  
Then he can leave off counting... like a grain measurer,
and he can count quickly (that is, early), as a cowherd does.
For  a skilled cowherd takes pebbles in his pocket and goes
to the cow  pen in the morning  sitting on the bar of the gate,
prodding  the cows in the back, he counts each one as it reaches
the gate saying  `one, two,' dropping a pebble for each.
And the cows of the herd,  which have been spending the
three watches of the night uncomfortably  in the cramped
space, come out quickly in parties, jostling each other
as they escape.  So he counts (early), saying
`three, four,  five,' and so on up to ten.
For as long as the meditation subject is connected  with counting
it is with the help of that very counting that the mind  becomes unified,
just as a boat in a swift current is steadied with  the help of a rudder.7

Buddhaghosa (traditional commentary, fifth century CE)

 
The essential method of this practice is very simple. We give continuous attention to the flow of the breath coming in and out of the body, and whenever we notice our attention straying, we gently bring it back to the breath.
As we continue doing this we will find our attention becoming deeper and more constant, as the mental wandering tends to lessen. We will feel as though our scattered energies are being collected together - rounded up like stray cattle - as we persist in returning our attention to the breath. Experiencing the mind coming together in this way is uniquely satisfying: we feel increasingly peaceful, relaxed and clear-minded. Once we are able to settle our attention constantly upon the breath, we begin to feel completely absorbed. There is that tangible sense  of integration, of being totally `ourselves'.
In a way, there is no reason why we should not use any object as a focus for concentration. The breath is just one of thousands of possible concentration objects.  For example, we could  concentrate on a small visual object - perhaps a matchbox, a black  dot, or an orange.  The trouble is that people who are unused to meditation  techniques can easily become bored with such things, or even hypnotically  fixated on them.
The breath is especially good as an object, because it can engage our interest deeply while allowing a certain flexibility. This flexibility of mind is quite important, for if our attention is allowed to become stiff and wooden we will lose our energy and inspiration. Breathing is inherently interesting. It is a very tangible sensation with a certain rhythm and a soft sensuous quality that is naturally enjoyable and engaging. Breath is also rather a mysterious thing: it is the breath of life, something all creatures depend upon in each moment for their existence.
Perhaps it is because it is so basic to our survival that the quality of the breath is so closely associated with our physical and mental state. When we are emotionally stirred, our breath quickens. As our body relaxes and becomes calm, our breathing quietens down; and as our breathing becomes still, so our mind becomes correspondingly collected, composed, and inwardly content.
But even though breathing can engage our attention in so many ways, a certain effort will still be needed to stay engaged with it for a whole meditation session. Now and again you will probably find yourself becoming distracted, and perhaps completely losing track of what you are doing. So in the initial stages of the mindfulness of breathing meditation, the method is to 'tag' each breath with a number, from one to ten, just to keep the mind on the task.
 
the stages of the mindfulness of breathing meditation
 
I will describe the four stages of the practice now.  You  can try the meditation right away if you wish - just make sure you  are sitting in a position that will be comfortable for 15-20 minutes,  and read right through the description of the stages before you begin.
 
the four stages in brief
 
Here is a brief description of the meditation stages,  to give you an overall idea before you start.
 
Begin by sitting quietly for a minute or two, to relax and settle  yourself down.
 
(1) Feel the sensation of the breathing as  it flows naturally in and out of the body.  Just after each breath  leaves the body, mark it with a (mental) count.  Count ten breaths  in this way, then start again at one.
 
(2) After doing that for a short while (say  four or five minutes), start counting each breath just before  it enters the body, counting in the same way as before.
 
(3) After a few minutes of stage 2 stop counting  altogether, and simply experience the flow of the breathing.
 
(4) Finally, direct your attention to the  point where you most feel the air making contact with your body (this  will probably be in or around the nostrils or the upper lip, though  the exact location does not matter).  Choose any point that seems suitable,  and let your attention stay with the subtle sensations made by the  air stimulating that point.
 
the four stages in detail
 
Here are the four stages in a little more detail.
 



Sit quietly for a minute or two - relax, settle down.
Experience the sensation of your breathing.








Preparation

Make sure you are comfortably seated.

Stage 1

Count just after each out-breath.

Stage 2

Count just before each in-breath.

Stage 3

Stop counting and experience the general flow of the breathing.

Stage 4

Maintain your attention at the point where you most feel the air-stream.

stages of the mindfulness of breathing meditation
 
stage 1. counting after each outward breath. 
 
First take a minute or so to relax and settle down. Have your hands resting together in your lap or on your knees. It will help if you have already arranged everything you need to make a comfortable seat (though it will probably take some experimenting with different combinations of cushions and blankets before you get everything exactly right). It is best to close your eyes - but if you think you might become drowsy, have them half open.
Once you are settled, start to take your attention on to the breathing. Just let each breath come as it will, without altering its natural flow in any way - some breaths may be short, others long, or sometimes the breathing may feel awkward, rough, or like a sigh; and at other times it may be smooth, subtle, hardly perceptible. Whatever happens, experience each breath exactly as it comes.
Now, to establish your attention more continuously, start marking each breath with a count. Experience the overall sensation as one breath passes through the nose and into the lungs, and then out again. Then - just after the out-breath has finished - silently count: one . Again, experience a breath as it comes in, and goes out: count two . Once again breathe in, breathe out, and count three . Continue experiencing and counting each out-breath until you get up to  nine, then to ten. Then return to one and repeat the sequence.
Repeat the counting sequence over and over again throughout this whole first stage.  Whenever you notice that your attention has wandered, just bring it straight back to the breath and the counting. You need to get into a habit of returning to the meditation straight away, without wondering "how did that happen?", or thinking any more about it. Thoughts of that kind are an unnecessary distraction that will waste energy right now (you can reflect on them later if you like). For the time being, keep returning patiently to the breath-sensation - as time goes on you will find it easier to stay fully focused upon it. 
Continue to count in the same way, after the outward breath, for the rest of the first stage. Then move on to stage two.
 
stage 2. counting before each inward breath.
 
Now begin to count just before each breath comes in: anticipate each in-breath. This is only a slight change, but you will find that it alters the feeling of the meditation considerably.
So count one, and experience the flow of a breath come in and go out again. Then count two: again feel the inward and outward breath. Count three, and once again feel the inward and outward breath. Keep marking each in-breath with a count like this, until you get up to nine, then to ten, then return to one, just as before.
You will probably find that your attention sharpens up a little at this stage, because in anticipating each breath you have to take a slightly more active stance. Generally, this stage serves to establish the concentration more firmly. Keep counting in the same way, still patiently bringing your attention back to the breath-sensation every time it wanders. Then, when another few minutes have passed, move on to stage three.
 
stage 3 - just experiencing the flow of the breath. 
 
After practising the previous two stages for perhaps ten minutes, you will probably have built up a certain degree of concentration. Even if this does not  seem to have happened, you should still move on to the next stage. The change may not be very noticeable (it is likely that distractions are still present) but now it is less important to mark each individual breath.
So now stop counting altogether, and follow the natural flow of your breathing as continuously as you can. Feel it flowing down into your lungs, expanding  the diaphragm and causing the stomach to slightly rise and fall. (Be aware of this in a general way - don't get caught up in all the physiological details). Pay special attention to the turning points between the breaths, the points at which the direction of a breath turns around from out to in, and from in to out, like the turning of a tide. This will help you to be aware of the whole of each breath, so that your awareness is completely continuous from breath to breath to breath.
Allow the breathing to quieten naturally, and allow both your mind and body to quieten with it. As you continue into this stage, your attention and your physical posture are both likely to become calmer and more refined in quality - allow this to happen. 
Stay with the breath for a few minutes, still patiently bringing your attention back if it wanders. Keep bearing in mind what you are trying to do, otherwise you will forget and become distracted. Then, go on to stage four.
 
stage 4 - experiencing the subtle sensation of the breath
 
Now focus upon the subtle sensation just at the point where you feel the air entering and leaving your body. Choose any point that seems right - it will probably be in or around your nostrils or upper lip, but it could be further in towards your throat - and then stay with it.
As your breath passes this point, you may feel it as a soft, brushing sensation, cool as it comes in, warm as it goes out. Remain with that single point of sensation as continuously as you can, and rather than forcing your attention on to the sensation, try to be receptive to it. Feel all its details, all the slight changes in sensation - at each of the different phases of the in-breath, at the out-breath, and at the turning points between. Focus in so closely that you almost 'listen' to the sensation. 
Doing this will require every particle of your attention, because the sensation is subtle, and the quality of the sensation changes at each moment. Eventually it may become so subtle that it is almost imperceptible - it may even seem to disappear completely, so that you cannot perceive it, even when you try. When this happens, you can be sure that the breathing has not really disappeared - it has just become very quiet. So now you must look for it again, by softening and quietening your concentration in a new way. At this stage the mind needs to become more subtle to re-establish its correspondence with a more subtle object.
As the breathing relaxes at this new level of quietness and subtlety, the mind is able to achieve a new depth of calmness. This calm is joyful and blissful.
 
ending the meditation
 
When you are ready, gently bring  the practice to an end.  Bring it to an end gradually: slowly open  your eyes, and sit quietly for a while before getting up.  Don't get  up too abruptly, even if you feel like doing something energetic straight  away, because that could easily jar your mood - it may perhaps make  you over-sensitive later on in the day.
It is important to make a smooth transition from a session of meditation  to the rest of the day - don’t immediately get involved with the  hustle and bustle but do something quietly, just for a few minutes.   Gaze out of the window, take a short stroll, make a hot drink - do  something reflective that will help you to assimilate the experience,  even if nothing special seems to have happened in the meditation.
Remember that the way a session of meditation has affected you may  not be obvious all at once.
 
general advice on practising the mindfulness of breathing
 
Here are some basic points about how to approach this  meditation practice.
 
how to sit
 
Once you have found a suitable place, it is important  to set yourself up in a comfortable sitting position.  Remember that  you will be sitting still for twenty minutes or so, and even minor  discomfort may eventually become a drag on your attention.
Essentially, you need a stable and comfortable posture with an upright  back.  The way you achieve it does not particularly matter; you can  sit on a kitchen chair, kneel astride a pile of cushions, or sit cross-legged  in the traditional style.
In Chapter Seven there are details of the different ways of sitting  for meditation, and some of the illustrations at the beginning of  that chapter will provide ideas for experimentation if you need them.   If - like most people - your hips are stiff and you can't sit cross-legged for very long, then the best posture is probably to kneel,  on a thick blanket, with a high pile of cushions between your  legs.  The blanket under the legs helps prevent them getting numb,  and the high pile of cushions is important for most people in helping to prevent the back from slumping.
These points apply to cross-legged positions too - use plenty of cushions.  And have a folded blanket under your legs if possible.
Certainly use a kitchen chair if it seems better, but don't lean your  weight against the backrest (unless you actually have back trouble)  because of the tendency to slump.
 
ensuring that you have peace and quiet
 
You need a quiet place for meditation, and it is best  if you can be certain that no one is likely to disturb you.  For example,  if you think someone may ring you up while you are meditating, it  is a good idea to unplug the telephone.
Guaranteed quiet will make a considerable difference to your ability  to relax and `let go' into the meditation, and it is worth going to  some lengths to get it.  The effort of concentration can make you extra  sensitive to distractions, so music or a conversation  in a nearby room is likely to be a source of irritation.  But don't  be too fussy about this - there will always be external distractions  of some kind.  Even alone, in the depths of the countryside, there  are all kinds of distracting noises for one's mind to latch on to.   So once you have eliminated the distractions that you are able to  deal with, try to be patient.  Relax, let go! Just allow the distracting  sounds to come and go `in the background', while you focus on your  breathing.
 
understanding what to do
 
Spend a little time reading the basic instructions.  Make  sure you understand clearly what you are supposed to be doing in each  stage, so that you will not have to stop in the middle and check.
If you intend to take up meditation as a regular practice, then you  will soon need more personal guidance than this book can provide.   Find out about Buddhist meditation classes in your area.  (Link here)
 
moving from one stage to the next
 
Timing the stages on your own can be tricky.   I have heard of people recording their own audio tapes with a five-  or ten-minute bell to mark the stages, which sounds as if it could  be a good idea.  But it is not necessary to have exactly equal stages,  and you can soon learn to time them approximately using a wrist-watch.   Some people find it distracting to have to open their eyes, even for  a moment, to look.  If that is the case with you, then simply move  on to the next stage as you feel ready.  Once you feel your concentration  is sufficiently established in one stage, or that enough time has  passed, you can then go on to the next stage.
Even if, after some time, you don't seem to have become particularly  concentrated in one stage, move on to the next anyway, even if you  don't feel ready.  Don't get attached to the stages - use them to  work on your concentration from different angles.  It is useful to  gain experience in all four stages.  Sometimes, even after a difficult  start, you may find that a later stage has a more concentrating effect  once you get to it.
 
confidence in the transformation process
 
You should not be too dismayed if you sometimes  get very distracted.  The process of spiritual change is definitely  not a linear one! Progress towards a more concentrated state is often  reached by a rather roundabout route.
It is quite common for meditators, even experienced ones, to have  phases during which - for example - they cannot count even three  successive breaths without becoming completely distracted.  So take  heart, this is an adventure for all of us! This particular meditation  practice is very effective in countering the mind's tendency to distraction,  and there is often a reaction of some kind.  Over a period of time,  these disharmonies will all be resolved if you apply yourself consistently.
Remember that meditation is addressing the whole mind - that a transformation  is taking place at a subconscious level.  You need to `trust the process'  at such times.  Be patient.  Above all, continue to meditate as regularly  as possible, discussing it with your teacher - it’s best if you  can keep in touch with someone experienced with whom you can discuss  your practice - and eventually your state of mind will improve.   Even if there is a lot of distraction, you will usually find that  your state of mind after a meditation session is an improvement on  what was there before.
 
enjoying the practice
 
It is important to see meditation as something to be enjoyed.   The long-term results of meditation practice will be pleasant and  happy, even if you don't always experience that pleasure and happiness  as you actually sit there.
You will experience two things: the state of mind you happen to be  in then - which may be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on what  is happening in your life generally - and the effect of the activity  of your meditation on that state of mind.  For example, if you meditate  when you are very emotionally overwrought the experience probably  won't be pleasant; but the activity of bringing the mind back to the  breath is likely to calm you, and it may even resolve the conflict  then and there.  Or the improvement may be more gradual, spread over  a number of sessions.
Overall the effects of meditation are extremely beneficial, and the  more you appreciate those benefits the better.  Such appreciation will  affect your attitude to meditation, and your expectations of it - you  will generally tend to feel good about your practice.  If you meditate  in this more positive frame of mind it will naturally tend to be enjoyable,  and you will look forward to practising again another day.