Importance of Breath by Godwin Samararatne

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By Godwin Samararatne

The Gentle Way of Buddhist Meditation
Dhamma Talks by Godwin Samararatne
Hongkong, 1997
Day 4: 9th October 1997
Mindfulness on Breathing
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Godwin Samararatne:

I like to welcome you once again. As you notice, the talk this evening is on focusing our attention on our in-breath and our out-breath. This is one of the most well known and popular meditation techniques in all the Buddhist traditions. And it is also said that the Buddha became enlightened with the help of this technique. So let us see why this technique is so important.

Just to Know What Is Happening in Our Mind and Body

In Pali, this technique is described as Anapanasati, which means mindfulness of the in-breath and the out-breath. So in this meditation, the whole emphasis is on developing awareness and developing mindfulness. As we know, breathing takes place mechanically. So what is happening mechanically, we are trying to develop mindfulness, awareness. And as the whole emphasis is on mindfulness, what is very important for you to remember is that whatever is happening in our mind and body when we are practising this technique, we should learn to just to know, just to be mindful, just to be conscious of what’s happening. So when you have thoughts, please don’t consider them as a disturbance or as a distraction, but rather be aware that you are having thoughts. If you are hearing sounds, you just know you are hearing sounds. So if you are feeling different sensations in the body, whatever sensations you are experiencing, just know that you are experiencing different sensations. So you know these things are happening, you become mindful of these things and then just come back to your breath. So there is no need to have a battle when we are meditating on this technique. I often say that you have enough battles in life, please do not make meditation another battle. The whole idea of meditation is to experience freedom, to experience joy, to experience lightness, to be free of suffering but if you make it a battle, meditation itself becomes a source of suffering. So please remember this, please realize this, that the whole emphasis of this technique is just knowing or just being mindful or just being conscious of what is happening and then to spend more and more time with your breath, without a battle.

Experience the Present Moment

Another very important aspect of this technique is that it helps us to experience the present moment even for a few minutes. Because breathing is always taking place now, it is always happening now, if we are mindful or conscious of breathing even for a few minutes, you can experience what it is to be here, what it is to be present. Otherwise, most of the time we are lost with either the past or the future and we even don’t know whether we are in the past or the future. So there can be lot of confusion, lot of disorder in our minds but this technique, just by being in the present, it helps us to experience the present moment even for a few moments.

See Our Breath as Our Friend

Another important point to remember is that we need to make a connection with our breath and the way we can make a connection with our breath is to see our breath as our friend. So let us see in what way the breath is our friend. One thing is that he or she is the only friend who is with us all the time. I don’t think we have any friend who is with us all the time. So breath is the only friend who is with us all the time, always. Another reason is even when we are sleeping, our friend is active. Do you have any friends who will be with you when you are sleeping? But the breath, whether you are sleeping or whether you are not sleeping, it’s always with us.

Our “Friend” Helps Us to Recover from Emotions

Another reason why he or she is our best friend is, as I said earlier, it is always helping us to experience the present moment. And the moment you experience the present moment, those moments are moments of freedom. Related to that is that our friend, the breath, whenever we are having an emotion, if you at that moment think of your friend, please try that, there is an immediate recovery from that emotion and then you can experience some space because you come back to the present moment. A friend of mine asked me yesterday that when he is at the traffic lights, he becomes impatient. I think we can all relate to this situation, especially when we are late for an appointment and you see only the red light. So poor red light. You can be angry with the red light, you can be impatient about the red light and this can create lots of suffering for us. So I told my friend, the next time he finds himself in such a situation, just relax, spend some time with your breath. So earlier you were hating the red light, now you can feel grateful for the red light because thanks to the red light, you can be with your friend, the breath. So I like to repeat that whenever you are having any unpleasant emotions, it can be stress, it can be anger, it can be fear, it can be anxiety, it can be guilt, any unpleasant emotion that create our suffering, no sooner you think of your friend and spend sometime with the in-breath and the out-breath, what happens to that emotion? I will tell you a simple reason why we can find relief in such a situation. The simple reason is when we are having an emotion, what make it bigger, what make it worse are our thoughts. So that in such a situation, if you can spend a few minutes with our friend, there is no room for thoughts to arise and there is an immediate recovery.

Our “Friend” Can Help Us When We Die

Another moment, a very important moment our friend can help us is at the time we die. In fact in one of the texts, it is said that if you learn to practise this technique and if you learn to make a connection with your breath, at the moment you are dying and if you are conscious, immediately your attention can come to the breath. I’m very much interested in this work people do with dying people, helping dying people to die peacefully. It is interesting that one of the techniques they used is focusing on breathing. So isn’t it really valuable our friend helps us to live peacefully and helps us to die peacefully.

Forget Our Identification

Another beautiful aspect of our friend is that when we are with our friend even for a few minutes, all our identifications, that you are Chinese, Sri Lanka, German, English, all this is forgotten. In this world, there are these different divisions, racial divisions, religious divisions. Some of the problems in the modern world, maybe they recognize these divisions. So when you are with the breath, all these identifications drop away and then it is just the in-breath and the out-breath. So breathing is just breathing whether it is a Buddhist, whether it is a Christian, whether it is a Hindu, it is just the breath.

Experience the Calmness & Wisdom

Another aspect, maybe the last one, as time is running out, is that when we are with the breath, we can experience some calm, some space, some stillness in our mind. In Buddhist terms, this aspect is described as Samadhi, which is calm, tranquility, stillness. So it is interesting that this technique has the aspect of experiencing Samadhi, calm, and also as I said, it helps us to experience some insight, some wisdom. As I said, it helps us to see thoughts as just thoughts, just to mirror our thoughts, just experiencing the sensations, just experiencing sounds, so we can have this very important Buddhist insight: learning to see things just as they are.

How This Technique Help Us in Everyday Life

An interesting question is: does this technique help us in everyday life or only helps us when we are sitting on a cushion? So I would suggest that as I said, whilst sitting, we have this insight, we develop the skills, we develop awareness, we develop a non-reactive equanimous mind and then, what is more important, is to have such a mind in everyday life. So what I try to do in my talk is to present some points, some aspects about the importance of this technique of being aware of our breathing. Maybe there are more points but I think I have no time. I would like to now invite any questions about what have been said and any questions about this practice.

Q&A

Audience: I would like to know what is the difference between the meditation we are learning now and the meditation that are taught by other religion?

Godwin Samararatne: It’s a very theoretical question but I always prefer simple practical question but still I will respond to that theoretical question. When you say other religion, it can include so many religions. So in religion where there is always some emphasis on meditation, there is always an emphasis on making the mind calm and making the mind still. In fact, in Christianity, there is this beautiful saying: Become still and be like God. So that in different religion, they may use different techniques but the principle is using those techniques to experience some calmness, some stillness, some spaciousness. Another similarity is that any tradition where there is meditation, there has to be an element of awareness, there has to be an element of knowing, understanding what is happening in the mind. So I would suggest that these two aspects are there in any spiritual tradition where there is meditation.

Anything else? I would like some practical questions relating to the technique.

Audience: How can I know what to do with the breathing and how to feel the effects of the breathing?

Godwin Samararatne: You don’t have to experience the effects of breathing. In fact when I give a guided meditation, I would try to suggest what has to be done. What has to be done is something very simple. Just feel what happens when the body is breathing. So using the sensations and the movements in the body, to be conscious, to be aware. So I would like to repeat that you don’t have to do anything special. It is just being conscious of your in-breath and your out-breath.

Audience: When we are meditating, we may feel tired and sleepy. What should we do in that situation?

Godwin Samararatne: Very good practical question. So one suggestion is, just open your eyes. Another is, it is interesting in the Buddhist text, it is emphasized to have your spine erect. So if you can have your spine erect, then to a great extent it is very difficult to feel sleepy or drowsy. Another suggestion is, I mean you are welcomed to stand up. So you can try some of these things and then I would say that they should immediately work. Anything else?

Audience: The first question is, in Chinese, we say that we have got only one mind and we cannot use one mind for two things at the same time. And during our daily life, we have to attend work and most of the time we are very busy, so how can we deal with our work and make friends with our breathing at the same time? And the second question is you said earlier that breathing is our best friend and is with us all the time even when we are sleeping, so when we have dreams or when we are in deep sleep, how can we take care of our breathing at that time?

Godwin Samararatne: I’ll start with the last question. What is interesting about our friend is that there are times when we can ignore it. Because when you are dreaming and when we are sleeping, to think of your breath, we have to have awareness and consciousness. Unless you are a very advance meditator, you can have some element of awareness while you are sleeping and dreaming, otherwise I mean who is the person who has awareness when you are sleeping and dreaming. So my response is, this is a situation where you can just leave our friend alone and he or she would not mind it at all. So the first question was that in everyday life we have to do different things. Now when we have to do different things, how can we do different things and still take care of our friend. As I said, to think of your friend, you have to stop your work. This is why I said when the traffic lights are red, when you are just doing nothing, just be conscious of your friend rather than be impatient about the red light. When you are having a particular emotion and when you are bothered about that emotion and at that moment, you will not be trying to do different things and at that moment, just come back to the breath. But still I like to respond, what we might try to do as meditators when we have to do different things. So here what happens is when we have to do different things, what can affect us is that we might have the idea: I have to do many things but it is possible I might make a mistake. Sometimes this is what creates the tension. As I said yesterday, in cultures where the emphasis is on doing things perfectly, rightly, you want to do always, everything rightly and perfectly. So I think in a way, in such situations, if you can just let go of this idea of perfection, this can be helpful. This is one suggestion.

Another interesting point is that although we have to do different things, we can, as you rightly said, do only one thing at a time. So that if we can learn to be conscious of whatever we are doing at a particular situation, then one can develop what is called moment to moment awareness in relation to what has to be done.

Maybe one last suggestion which can be very helpful is when you are working, when you have to do different things, as I said earlier, what is important is to become conscious of your state of mind. Are you anxious, are you stressful, are you insecure, are you relaxed? So it is very important for those who are really interested in everyday practice to constantly check out your state of mind. Whether you are working or whether you are not working, try to develop this practice of constant watching, awareness of what is happening in your mind. So when you have to do different things, after being aware of different things, just watch your state of mind. Is it reacting or is it responding? These are two very interesting words: reacting, responding. Responding is doing what is necessary without reacting. Reacting is getting anxious, getting fearful, getting stressed, tense and so on. So as you are still human and as you’re still practicing, it is human that we will start to react in certain situations. So if you are able to be conscious even at the time you are reacting, at least later on, when there is space, where there is clarity, when you have recovered from that emotion, you can look back and find out: why did I react? Why couldn’t I have responded to that situation? Then as I said yesterday, we learn from our mistakes, we can learn even from our reactions. So this kind of inquiry has to be done without giving yourself a minus. You do have to do this kind of enquiry in a very friendly, gentle, playful way. And then you can experiment with it, you say now tomorrow let me go and see how will I work. Will I react, will I respond? And in the reaction, how long will it last? So you are going with an open mind to see what is going to happen. These are very interesting, beautiful aspects of meditation, to see it as experimenting, experimenting with yourself. So when you try one experiment, you don’t take up a position. So without taking up a position, you’re just learning, finding out, exploring, experimenting. We can experiment, explore, learn from any situations.

So there’s time for one last question please.

Audience: I am aware of myself being aware of the thoughts, then in that case, I cannot concentrate on my meditation, so what can I do?

Godwin Samararatne: So the question is, if as I understood it correctly, if you are observing the thoughts, that is not meditation. If that is not meditation, what exactly was the question you didn’t understand.

Interpreter: His question is when he meditates, he is aware of the passing thoughts and at that stage, he is O.K, he can still concentrate but when he is aware that he is aware of the passing thoughts, then that affects his concentration.

Godwin Samararatne: So this is another point we have to remember, this word “concentration”. Those who are listening to me carefully will remember I have not used the word “concentration” at all, but rather than “concentration”, the words I use are “awareness”, “mindfulness”, “just knowing”. I purposely avoid the word “concentration” because this is what is creating the vacuum. This is what is creating the suffering. So what I would suggest is, whatever is happening, if the mind is concentrated, just know that the mind is concentrated and when the mind is not concentrated, just know the mind is not concentrated. What is the problem? It is very important when we sit for meditation, not to have an expectation, an idea, a model of what should happen or what should not happen. In the Zen tradition, there is a beautiful word for it, to have the beginner’s mind, or the “don’t know” mind. And expectation is what creates suffering in our life. When we have expectations and when they do not correspond to our expectations, we are suffering in life and this is how suffering is created in meditation. It is very interesting. So when we meditate without having any expectation, you will just try to know what is happening from moment to moment. And it is very very important not to give pluses and minuses when we are meditating. So someone is expecting to concentrate and then when you think you are concentrated, you give yourself a big plus and holding on to the concentration and that’s how tension is created. And when the mind is not concentrated, big minus. So in meditation also we are rating, giving pluses, giving minuses, giving pluses, giving minuses. This is what we are doing in ordinary life, so at least in meditation, please learn just to be open to whatever is happening.

So now I like to suggest that you take a small break and during the break, please make an effort to have mindfulness and when you move around, please make an effort to move slowly and with awareness so that you begin preparing your mind for the meditation. Please learn to walk slowly please.

[Break]

Godwin Samararatne: Please sit in a relaxed position. It is very important to sit with a relaxed body. Please realize we are not going to do something special so you can just relax.

So let us spend some time with our body. Just feel the body. The different sensations, the different movements in your body.

If there are thoughts, just let go of the thoughts and come back to the body. So feeling the body is one thing, thinking about the body is another, please see the difference. Here, we are learning to feel our body.

Let us learn to feel friendly and gently and kind towards our body.

Let us now feel what it is to sit with our body completely still.

Now please allow the body to breath naturally.

No need to control our breath or to manipulate our breathing, not to manipulate our natural breathing.

Let us spend a few minutes just learning to allow the body to do what it likes.

Now just feel what happens in the body when the body is breathing, the different sensations, the different movements in the body when the body is breathing.

Do you feel any sensation in the area of the nostrils? Do you feel any sensation in the area of the chest? Do you feel the rise and the fall of the abdomen?

Experiencing the present moment with the help of the sensations and movements in your body because they are happening now.

When the body is inhaling you know that the body is inhaling. When the body is exhaling you know that the body is exhaling.

Not thinking about the past, not thinking about the future. Experiencing the joy of the present moment with the help of the in-breath and the out-breath.

Please do not try to stop thoughts or control thoughts.

If thoughts are there, just know you are having thoughts and come back to your friend, the breath.

Just feel relaxed with your breath.

Let us feel friendly and gentle towards our mind and body.

No pluses to what is happening, no minuses to what is happening. Just knowing whatever is happening.

Now please open your eyes slowly and when you change your posture, please do it slowly, consciously. And please don’t think that the meditation is over. Just continue to know what is happening in the mind and body from moment to moment.

Now let us do some chanting. So when you are chanting, please have your body still and please don’t make any noises because chanting itself is a meditation. Like using the breath to experience the present moment, using the chanting to experience the present moment and to create space in our mind through our chanting. I like to suggest not to look at the paper because these are simple words and you will be able to pick up the words.