Mindfulness of Breathing #1

These are notes from Joseph Goldstein’s book “Mindfulness.” This is the first part of Chapter 7 – Mindfulness of Breathing.

This sutra has many avenues to take that will lead to awareness. Buddha had a great range of skillful means, tailoring his teaching to the particular audience or person he was addressing. It is helpful for us, as practitioners, to find the particular approach that resonates with our own experience and interest.

The four establishments of awareness
  1. Body
  2. Feelings
  3. Mind
  4. Dhammas

Using the body as the object of contemplation

Body mindfulness is one of the most direct and easy way to return to awareness. It can become a source of great joy. It is a direct way to overcome the onslaughts of Mara, the forces of ignorance and delusion in the mind. When Mara appears, return to the sensations of the body.

Buddha makes a great claim. His claim is that mindfulness of the body is the basis for every kind of accomplishment leading to awakening. We can always return in the midst of emotional storms, ups and downs, endless circling thoughts to just this breath or just this step. We can return to the simplest aspect of what’s already here.

Buddha further clarifies this practice by saying:

“And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu abide contemplating the body as the body? Here a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out….”

He establishes where to practice, suggesting that we have an appropriate degree of seclusion. It could mean in the course of our daily life, establishing a place that is dedicated to practice right in our home such as a room, or a corner of a room where we create an environment of stillness and beauty. A place of inner seclusion right in the midst of all the activity of life.

Buddha establishes the posture of sitting.  Though Buddha establishes posture as sitting crosslegged because we in the west don’t sit on the floor very much, some of us are not able to sit that way. In the west we have accommodated ourselves by using chairs and benches. Sit in a way that works for you and your body. We need to have a balance between giving a lot of attention to posture and being to careless with our body. It is good to try and keep the spine straight. It is helpful to keep the back straight, without being stiff or tense. This is the way to practice being ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free of desires and discontent in regard to the world. We strike a balance between effort and effortlessness. Not being too tight, and not being too loose. Overtime, we learn how to both use and adjust the form, seeing what is needed at any particular time.

Focusing Attention

From the sutta: She establishes mindfulness in front of herself.
The Theravadins call in front to mean
  • At the nose
  • Chest or solar plexus
  • The rising and falling of the abdomen
Zen talks about feeling the movement of the breath, following the breath or feeling the breath at the hara – the rising and falling of the abdomen.
Strictly speaking, this is not so much mindfulness of the breath as it is the contemplation of the air element, which is another of the body contemplations.

Another instruction is to observe the breath wherever it is easiest, wherever you feel it most clearly.

Establishing Presence of Mind

The phrase ‘setting mindfulness in front” also means establishing a meditative composure and attentiveness. A Chinese version of the Satipatthana Sutta says, “with thoughts well controlled, not going astray.” We need to set the conscious intention to be mindful. The manner in which we begin our meditation often conditions the entire direction of the sitting.

In the Middle Length Discourses, one discourse relates how the Brahmin youth Brahmayu shadowed the Buddha around and describes how the Buddha took his meditation seat:

“He seats himself cross-legged, sets his body erect, and establishes mindfulness in front of him. He does not occupy his mind with self-affliction, or the affliction of others, or the affliction of both; he sits with his mind set on his own welfare, on the welfare of others, and on the welfare of both, even on the welfare of the whole world.”