Breath and Meditation

There are only two things that our body does all the time namely that our heart pumps blood and our lungs breathe. Only one of these is voluntary and under our direct and willful control. Many of us are completely unconscious of our breath we breathe without ever giving much thought to it. If our breath is left uncontrolled it simply reacts to the needs of the body; speeding up and slowing down as required. The breath reacts to stressful and relaxing situations automatically by becoming more shallow or deeper. In meditation, we learn to reverse this situation and to purposely use our breath for the betterment of our practice.

Although I know that there are many complicated and advanced breathing techniques taught within the framework of Tibetan Buddhism I will not be touching on any of them here on this website. Simply put, Tumo and Vase breathing are for advanced practitioners only as their misuse can lead to problems in the practice of the beginner. Not to mention that these practices are held as secrets and are only taught at the behest of a qualified Lama only after the student has completed many Ngondros or a three year retreat.

With that being said we can now move on to the theme at hand, Breath and Meditation. I start every meditation by focusing on my breath and setting an intention such as may all beings be happy, healthy, and free and. There is simply no better way to turn one’s attention inward than to feel how the air tickles, cools, or warms the first few centimeters of our noses. Try it now, close your eyes then slowly and calmly breathe in and notice the sensation it evokes as the air enters your body. Turn your attention further inward as your diaphragm slowly moves down and your chest expands to allow for the intake of more and more air. How does this change as we feel the need and begin to exhale? It is as if 100kgs of weight leave my shoulders as my diaphragm rises and my chest contracts. Are you more relaxed and present in the moment? Working with our breath like this is often called shiné as it helps us to calm our mind and keep it in one place for a short time. For some of you, this may have been the first time you have practised to breathe mindfully if it felt good once try it again this time counting to one for the first in and exhalation then two for the second in and exhalation and so on, up to 21. Start over and return to one if you become distracted and begin to think about your grocery list or the pretty girl you passed by on the way to the elevator. It is completely natural if, in the beginning, you can only make it to two or three before having to start over again. One is easily tempted to think that he or she is too distracted to learn to do this, “I cannot meditate or I simply have too much going on in my mind to do this right”. With this simple exercise, we have only noticed for the first time just how distracted we normally are.

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Meditation is called a practice because it is something we have to practise. Try this out for four or five days in a row, you can spend as little or as much time as you like. The more time you have the more it will make a difference. Once the body is calm as the waves on water in the evening when the wind has died down one can see deeper into the ocean of mind, this is known as Laktong or insight. Insight is why we learn to meditate as we can discover the innate wisdom of mind. And when we begin and end the practice with the wish that all beings find happiness we start to develop the beyond personal quality of true compassion.

QP

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26 thoughts on “Breath and Meditation”

  1. Hmm…. this is something i have been doing for a while… i can also settle my mind on particular points in the body and observe them expand and contract with the breath… the problem i seem to have sometimes is that while my sensory awareness is somewhat grounded, part of my awareness, the verbal conceptual aspect of consciousness goes into conceptual constructions… so i will be sitting there aware of the sensations of body and breath but part of my awareness will be thinking about something in the past or planning some action in the future.
    Any suggestions as to how i can address this drifting away?

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    1. Well this is the quintessential problem almost all meditators face almost all the time that they are meditating. As in previous pages that you have commented on my site such as using the distraction as a focus for a few moments or changing the focus to another part of the Buddha or bhodisattva image are common. But the most potent is to return to the focus what ever it is as soon as you realize that you are distracted and to do so without any judgment. You then carry on as if nothing has happened. In time it gets easier but one must practice this, a lot.
      QP

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      1. Yes i think if i do the second practice, which connects the breath with light and the Om Ah Hum mantra, that will keep my discursive mind engaged and give it less scope to be distracted. Any distractions will also be easier to spot, because the various faculties are converging on the same task.

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        1. Yes what one can do here is to stay with the light and it’s om, ah, or hung for as long as you can maintain your concentration. This might be a few seconds one day longer the next and non existent on another attempt. It does not matter just keep going.

          Do you have a place nearby where you live where you can learn more? Something like a Buddhist Centre or a temple. It is a good idea to find a teacher.

          QP

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        2. I have a guru but he is from the Vaishnav Sahajiya tradition. On top of that hes a bit of a savant, so he did not go through the regular step by step processes himself. I can only practice what he has to teach once i have achieved some measure of shamatha.

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        3. The Vaishnav Sahajiya tradition is from my understanding is Vedanta or Hindu philosophy. While it is similar it is different from Tibetan tantric practices and one would be wise to not mix the teachings and methods. You risk at the very least winding up confused and at the worst with some serious energy blocks in your body. What does your guru say to this?

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        4. No. The Sahajiya tradition is a non dual tantric tradition. Very much in line with the teachings of Padmasambhava and 84 Mahasiddhas of mahamudra. Remember that before the mahamudra teachings went to tibet they were developed in Bengal. There are gurus here that teach both and are empowered in both systems. My guru sticks to his own tradition but has never discouraged my comparativist inquiries.

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        5. Yes and all traditions trace their roots back to the Buddha but the does not mean that there are not significant differences between the many traditions separated after a 1000 years not to mention cultural and geographical influences. A good example would be Tibetan and Zen Buddhism both site Nagarjuna as an extraordinarily important influence but Zen is totally different from Tibetan Buddhism. It’s up to you what you wish to do. I can only answer your questions based on my tradition, just so you know. 🙂 it’s cool chatting with you.

          QP

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        6. My area of research is the history of indian contemplative traditions, so i appreciate tour concerns but let me assure you they do not apply in this case. I will write about it on my blog one day soon. Just to take the example you gave, despite their differences there are points of similarity and agreement between vajrayana, Chan buddhism in china and japanese zen. .. vajrayana itself is not a purely buddhist tradition but incorporates much of Shaivite tantric ritual structure in it. See Sanderson’s Vajrayana: origin and function for more. For me as a student of religious history and an amateur practitioner, the interesting stuff happens only in the interface between traditions.

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        7. That is a very interesting take. I definitely agree that you will find many similarities and some differences. I also love to find congruencies and areas of agreement. But a scholarly study is not comparable to the actual practice. It would be extremely difficult to practice Zen, Chan, and Tibetan Buddhism all at once. It would be confusing even if one managed to find the time to do each of the individual practices justice. That’s why I say it’s better not to mix and to dig deep in one spot. I would love to read your paper when it is finished. 🙂

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        8. Well if we think of practice conceptually, in terms of a set of actions yes, they are different. But if we think of non-conceptual practice that requires no effort of mind or body, how different are they? Thats the beauty of non-dual tantric traditions, they do not exclude the lesser views, but include them , integrating them into the non-dual framework. so for example if you absorbed in the supreme perfection of dzogchen then you are also already doing chan and zen. The only spot we are digging is the nature of the mind. Now we could have thought of difference if one was using a shovel and the other was using a mechanical drill and so on, but if two non dual tantric traditions share the same view of the inseparability of samsara and nirvana and prescribe non conceptual methods of simply observing the mind and allowing the natural state of the mind (which is pure awareness) to emerge then there is very little to my understanding that can allow us to separate these two traditions.

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        9. I mean i dont mean to diss your concerns, and i recognise that in the whole ‘new-age’ scenario there is entirely too much mixing and matching going on. So your concerns are valid. I am merely arguing that there are historical points of intersection between various traditions and that it is possible to navigate one’s way to the natural perfection of the mind without getting involved with sectarian affiliation.

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        10. Im not averse to having a vajrayana teacher but im not ina position where i can go looking right now

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        11. I hope so! For me accepting someone as a guru isnt just about their technical qualifications but also its about how comfortable i feel with them. It aslo has to do with how skillfully they handle the negative aspects of my personality.

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    2. I would also mention that I do not know if these methods are appropriate to practice with what you described as a body scan meditation. This type of meditation is a Theravada meditation and the methods I mentioned are Vajrayana methods. I do not think it is wise to mix meditation styles. One is wise in the beginning to try a few styles but then to settle on one and dig deep in one spot. This is how you will have the best results.

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      1. Body awareness is also a key part of tantric dharanas. It is only on top of sensations of key locations of the body that the imaginative constructs are layered. Without being grounded in sensation the dahrana is reduced to mere imagination.Maybe you want to elaborate on the differences between shamatha and vipassayana in the theravadin and the vajrayani contexts, perhaps then i could more coherently understand your concerns.

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