By Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Simple breathing meditation can be a powerful tool to observe the mind and its movements. Here is a guided meditation to still the mind using the breath that even beginners can practice
Sit comfortably erect, without leaning forward or backward, left or right. Close your eyes and think thoughts of goodwill. Let these go first to yourself, because if you can’t feel a sincere desire for your own happiness, there’s no way you can truly wish for others’ happiness. Remind yourself that this is not a selfish desire. If you find and develop resources for happiness within you, you’re able to radiate it to others. It’s a happiness that doesn’t depend on taking anything away from anyone else.
Now spread goodwill to others. First, to loved ones: may they find true happiness. Then spread these thoughts in ever-widening circles: people you know well, people you don’t know so well, people you like, people you are neutral about, and even people you don’t like. Don’t let there be any limitations on your goodwill, for if there are, there will be limitations on your mind. Now spread goodwill to people you don’t know—and not just people; all living beings in all directions, out to infinity.
Bring your thoughts back to the present. If you want true happiness, you have to find it in the present, for the past is gone and the future is uncertain. What do you have right here? You’ve got the body, sitting here and breathing. And you’ve got the mind, thinking and aware. Bring all these together. Think about the breath and be aware of the breath as it comes in and goes out. Keeping your thoughts directed to the breath: that’s mindfulness. Being aware of the breath: that’s alertness. Keep those two aspects of the mind together. You can use a meditation word to strengthen mindfulness. Try ‘buddho’, which means ‘awake’. Think ‘bud-’ with the in-breath, ‘dho’ with the out.
Breathe as comfortably as possible. A concrete way of providing for your happiness in the immediate present—and for strengthening your alertness—is to breathe comfortably. See what kind of breathing feels best right now. It might be long, short; in long, out short; or in short, out long. Once you find a comfortable rhythm, stay with it for a while. Savor the sensation of breathing.
Think of the breath, not simply as air coming in and out of the lungs, but as the energy flow through the body. Be sensitive to its texture. You may find that the body changes after a while. One rhythm or texture may feel right for a while, and then something else will feel comfortable. Learn how to listen and respond to what the body is telling you right now. What kind of breath energy does it need? How can you best provide it? If you feel tired, breathe in a way that energizes. If you feel tense, breathe in a way that’s relaxing.
If your mind wanders, gently bring it right back. If it wanders off a hundred times, bring it back a hundred times. This quality is called ardency. As soon as you realize that the mind has slipped away, bring it right back. You don’t spend time aimlessly sniffing flowers, or listening to the birds. You’ve got work to do; which is learning how to breathe comfortably, how to let the mind settle in a good space in the present moment.
When the breath feels comfortable, explore it in other areas of the body. If you simply stay with the comfortable breath in a narrow range, you’ll tend to doze off. So consciously expand your awareness. A good place to focus first is around the navel. Locate it in your awareness. Notice: how does it feel as you breathe? Watch for a couple of breaths, and notice if there’s any tightness there. Is it tensing as you breathe in? Are you holding the tension as you breathe out? Are you putting too much force on the out-breath? If you catch yourself doing any of these things, think of that tension dissolving away. You can think of the breath energy coming into the body right there at the navel, working through any tension or tightness…
Then move your awareness to the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen—and follow the same three steps: locate that body part in your awareness; notice how it feels as you breathe; and if you sense any tension in the breath, just let it relax… Move your awareness to the lower left-hand corner of your abdomen, and follow the same steps.
Now move your awareness up to the solar plexus…to the right flank…to the left flank…to the middle of the chest… to the base of the throat…and then to the middle of the head. Be careful with the breath energy in the head. Think of it gently coming in, not only through the nose but also the eyes, ears, down from the top of the head, in from the back of the neck, gently working through any tension you may feel…
Move attention gradually down the back, out the legs, and repeat the steps until you’ve reached the tips of the toes. Then repeat the process, beginning at the back of the neck and going down the shoulders, through the arms, past your wrists, and out through your fingers.
You can repeat this survey of the body as many times as you like, preferably until the mind feels ready to settle down.
Let your attention return to any spot in the body where it feels most naturally centred. Let it rest there, at one with the breath. At the same time let the range of your awareness spread out so that it fills the entire body, like the light of a candle in the middle of a room: the candle flame is in one spot, but its light fills the entire room. Or like a spider on a web: the spider’s in one spot, but it knows the whole web.
Maintain that broadened awareness. You’ll find it tends to shrink, like a balloon with a small hole, so keep broadening its range, thinking ‘whole body, whole body, breath in the whole body, from the top of the head to the tips of the toes’. Think of the breath energy coming in and out of the body through every pore. Make a point of staying with this centred, broadened awareness. There’s nothing else you have to think about right now, nowhere else to go, nothing else to do…
There’s a skill to leaving meditation too. You don’t just jump right out. My teacher, Ajaan Fuang, once said that when most people meditate, it’s as if they’re climbing a ladder up to the second storey of a building, rung-by-rung. But as soon as they get to the second storey, they jump out of the window. Don’t let yourself be that way. Think of how much effort went into getting yourself centred.
Spread thoughts of goodwill once more. Then remind yourself that even though your eyes will be open, you want your attention to stay centred in the body, at the breath. Maintain that centre as long as you can, as you get up, walk around. The skill of leaving meditation lies in learning how not to leave it. If you can keep the mind centred in this way, you’ll have a standard for measuring its movements, its reactions to events around and within it. Only when you have a solid centre like this can you gain insight into the movements of the mind
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, known informally as Ajaan Geoff, is an American-born Theravada monk who has been the abbot of Metta Forest Monastery in California, USA, since 1993. He teaches throughout the US and has contributed significantly to the Dhamma Dana Publications project with his books Wings to Awakening, Mind Like Fire Unbound, and a free-verse translation of the Dhammapada.
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