Mindfulness of Breathing

Blog post from Plum Blossum Sangha titled “Mindfulness of Breathing – Anapanasati”

Mindfulness can be described as a kind of energy that helps us be aware of what is going in within us and around us or the practice of moment to moment observation of the present moment with a non-judgmental, non-discriminative mind. While the practice is simple and clear enough, there are numerous objects that we can observe and some difficulties may come up in the process of observation. The exercises below can help us learn the art and science of mindfulness practice. They guide us towards helpful directions to place our mindfulness – for example our breathing as well as the body, feelings, mind or objects of mind. They help us widen our mindfulness practice toolkit to be able to practice in a variety of situations. They provide a useful framework for growing our mindfulness practice over the long-run. Conveniently, the first four of sixteen exercises below are focused on developing awareness of the body (and breath), the second on awareness of our feelings, the third on awareness of our mind, and last on awareness of our mind-objects.

I

1. Recognizing in-breath and out-breath, “Breathing in, I am aware I am breathing in.” ”Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.”

We can begin the practice by simply bringing our attention to our breathing. We can do so by for instance placing our attention at the tip of our nose, the area around the nostrils and upper lip, and noticing the air going in and the air going out, identifying in-breath as in-brath and out-breath as out-breath. We can watch the air going by the tip as it goes in and then out, like a guard making a note of everyone entering and leaving a building. We can also place our attention in the abdomen area, a couple of inches below the navel. This can be a particularly helpful to focus on to quieten our mind or to slow down our thinking.  Of course it may be difficult to practice mindfulness of breathing for long. Distractions may come up. If they do we simply make a note of the distraction, smile to it and come back to observing our breathing. In each moment there are many things going on, by focusing on our breathing we direct our attention to a place of groundedness and solidity.  In practicing this exercise please remember to not force the breathing in any way. In practicing with a non-judgmental mind, it essential to observe things as they are and that includes our breathing.

2. Following the breath, “Breathing in a long breath, I know I am breathing in a long breathe. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out a long breath.“

This will vary depending on what we notice about our breathing – our breath can be long, short, deep, easy, uneasy, etc. We simply notice the characteristics of our breath and as mentioned in the previous instruction we observe the in and out breath from the beginning to the end. Some helpful practices to build some concentration on following our breath are to count our breath.  For example, as we breathe in we can say one, and as we breathe one. We continue in this way till we get to ten and then count back towards one. Every time we lose our attention we go back to one. Another counting practice is to count the length of in-breath and out-breath. For example, breathing in we may count till 2 and breathing out we may count till 4. We simply notice how long or short our breathing is without forcing it any way.

3. Awareness of body, “Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I smile to my body.”

We can begin with a general awareness of the body and then bring attention to different parts of our body or the different elements with which our body is composed of or the positions of our body – whether we are sitting, walking, lying down, washing dishes, etc and the process of change occurring in our body. For instance, we can be aware of and smile to our feet, calves, knees, thighs, hips, back, stomach, small intestines, large intestines, lungs, heart, liver, spleen, kidneys, bladder, your throat, face, head, hair and brain.

The practice of recognizing and smiling is critical. It is the heart of mindfulness practice, of non-judgmentally observing what is there in the present moment and not reacting to it. By practicing being aware of our body in this way we train ourselves to observe with mindfulness our feelings, mental formations, perceptions and consciousness.

4. Calming the body, “Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I calm the activities of my whole body and release any tension in my body.”

In the practicing the previous three exercise we can already perhaps begin to feel calmer. This thus follows naturally from the previous exercises. We can invite all the cells in our body to participate with this exercise or we can be as specific as we want. For example, we can say, “Breathing in, I am aware of my brain. Breathing out, I calm the activities of my brain.” There is also often a lot of tension accumulated in our body that we have not embraced or noticed. In calming the releasing the accumulated tension, we allow the healing process to begin.

II

5. Cultivating joy, Breathing in I am aware of the energy of  joy. Breathing out, I smile to the energy of joy.”

The Buddha often advised his practitioners to cultivate some strength particularly energies of joy and happiness before exploring or being with difficult feelings and emotions. Exercise five and six are here to intentionally recognize the energies of joy and happiness already present in us or nourish these energies in us. Joy and happiness may have arisen from simply practicing the previous four exercises, or we may notice the presence of these energies from other sources. This exercise is to help actively build the reservoir of solidity and stability and happiness in us.

6. Cultivating happiness, “Breathing in, I am aware of the energy of happiness in me. Breathing out, I smile to the energy of happiness.”

7. Recognizing difficult feelings, Breathing in, I am aware of a feeling present in me (pleasant, unpleasant & neutral). Breathing out, I smile to the feeling present in me.”

With the previous two exercises we looked at some of the pleasant feelings in us. This exercise allows us to explore some unpleasant or feelings that may be also present in us. This exercise is similar to the third exercise in that we have an opportunity to become aware of and smile to the wide range of feelings present in us. We give attention to the feelings that we may have neglected or been scared to look at head on but we do so with great love and non-violence towards the feelings. We can become aware of the arising, duration and fading of all pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings. We can also look deeply into them if we are strong enough, observing the psychological, physiological and physical roots and the impacts of our feelings on our mind, health and so on. We simply recognize and smile.

8. Calming feelings“Breathing in, I calm my feelings. Breathing out, I calm my feelings.”

Similar to the fourth exercise, with this exercise we can begin to calm or even release our feelings. With the previous exercise we practiced being with the feeling, accepting the feeling as it is with non-violence and love. With this exercise, after a period of being with the feeling we can begin to calm it and release it. Just as a mother calms a crying baby, we can also embrace our feelings, acknowledge their presence and gently calm them.

III

9. “Breathing in, I am aware of my mind. Breathing out, I am aware of my mind.”

We become aware of our mind. In the Sutra on Four Establishments of Mindfulness the Buddha recommends we practice in this way:

“When his mind is desiring, the practitioner is aware, ‘My mind is desiring.’

When is mind is not desiring, he is aware, ‘My mind is not desiring.’

When his mind is hating something, he is aware, ‘My mind is hating.’ When his mind is not hating, he is aware, ‘My mind is not hating.’

When his mind is in a state of ignorance, he is aware, ‘My mind is in a state of ignorance.’ When his mind is not in a state of ignorance, he is aware, ‘My mind is not in a state of ignorance.’

When his mind is tense, he is aware, ‘My mind is tense.’  When his mind is not tense, he is aware, ‘My mind is not tense.’

When his mind is distracted, he is aware, ‘My mind is distracted. When his mind is not distracted, he is aware, ‘My mind is not distracted.’

When his mind has a wider scope, he is aware, ‘My mind has widened in scope.’ When his mind has a narrow scope, he is aware, ‘My mind has become narrow in scope.’

When his mind is capable of reaching a higher state, he is aware, ‘My mind is capable of reaching a higher state.’ When his mind is not capable of reaching a higher sate, he is aware, ‘My mind is not capable of reaching a higher state.’

When his mind is composed, he is aware, ‘My mind is composed.’ When his mind is not composed, he is aware, ‘My mind is not composed.’

When his mind is free, he is aware, ‘My mind is free.’ When his mind is not free, he is aware, ‘My mind is not free.’ ”

10. “Breathing in, I make my mind happy. Breathing out, I make my mind happy.”

Here we have an opportunity to simply recall pleasant mind-states, again to nourish the ‘wholesome’ energies in us. This could include observing current conditions in your life that area already giving you happiness or happy memories.

11. “Breathing in,  I skillfully concentrate my mind. Breathing out, I skillfully concentrate my mind.”

This exercise and then next are to help us look deeply into the nature of reality to help us better understand our difficulties. There are many aspects we can concentrate our mind on such as interbeing, non-self, impermanence and compassion.  More on this here.

12. “Breathing in, I skillfully liberate my mind. Breathing out, I skillfully liberate my mind.”

IV

13. “Breathing in, I observe objects of my mind. Breathing out, I observe the objects of my mind.”

We have opportunities here to look deeply into our different notions, perceptions and concepts including:

  • Man
  • Enlightened person
  • Living being
  • Life span
  • Birth, death
  • Being, non-being
  • Coming, going
  • Sameness, otherness (superior, inferior, equality)

14. “Breathing in, I observe my attachments and unwholesome desires. Breathing out, I observe the dangers of my attachments and unwholesome desires.”

15. “Breathing in, I observe the no-birth, no-death nature of objects of mind. Breathing out, I observe the no-birth, no-death nature of objects of mind.”

16. “Breathing in, I observe letting go. Breathing out, I observe letting go.”

Based on the Sutra on Full Awareness of Breathing an Sutra on Four Establishments of Mindfulness. For a more in depth guide please refer to the following texts:

Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathe! You are alive: Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, (Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press, 1988).

Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation & Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, (Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press, 1990).

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The art of suffering well

From No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering by Thich Nhat Hanh 

We all want to be happy and there are many books and teachers in the world that try to help people be happier. Yet we all continue to suffer.

Therefore, we may think that we’re “doing it wrong.” Somehow we are “failing at happiness.” That isn’t true. Being able to enjoy happiness doesn’t require that we have zero suffering. In fact, the art of happiness is also the art of suffering well. When we learn to acknowledge, embrace, and understand our suffering, we suffer much less. Not only that, but we’re also able to go further and transform our suffering into understanding, compassion, and joy for ourselves and for others.

One of the most difficult things for us to accept is that there is no realm where there’s only happiness and there’s no suffering. This doesn’t mean that we should despair. Suffering can be transformed. As soon as we open our mouth to say “suffering,” we know that the opposite of suffering is already there as well. Where there is suffering, there is happiness.

According to the creation story in the biblical book of Genesis, God said, “Let there be light.” I like to imagine that light replied, saying, “God, I have to wait for my twin brother, darkness, to be with me. I can’t be there without the darkness.” God asked, “Why do you need to wait? Darkness is there.” Light answered, “In that case, then I am also already there.”

If we focus exclusively on pursuing happiness, we may regard suffering as something to be ignored or resisted. We think of it as something that gets in the way of happiness. But the art of happiness is also the art of knowing how to suffer well. If we know how to use our suffering, we can transform it and suffer much less. Knowing how to suffer well is essential to realizing true happiness.

Healing Medicine

The main affliction of our modern civilization is that we don’t know how to handle the suffering inside us and we try to cover it up with all kinds of consumption. Retailers peddle a plethora of devices to help us cover up the suffering inside. But unless and until we’re able to face our suffering, we can’t be present and available to life, and happiness will continue to elude us.

There are many people who have enormous suffering, and don’t know how to handle it. For many people, it starts at a very young age. So why don’t schools teach our young people the way to manage suffering? If a student is very unhappy, he can’t concentrate and he can’t learn. The suffering of each of us affects others. The more we learn about the art of suffering well, the less suffering there will be in the world.

Mindfulness is the best way to be with our suffering without being overwhelmed by it. Mindfulness is the capacity to dwell in the present moment, to know what’s happening in the here and now. For example, when we’re lifting our two arms, we’re conscious of the fact that we’re lifting our arms. Our mind is with our lifting of our arms, and we don’t think about the past or the future, because lifting our arms is what’s happening in the present moment.

To be mindful means to be aware. It’s the energy that knows what is happening in the present moment. Lifting our arms and knowing that we’re lifting our arms—that’s mindfulness, mindfulness of our action. When we breathe in and we know we’re breathing in, that’s mindfulness. When we make a step and we know that the steps are taking place, we are mindful of the steps. Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something. It’s the energy that helps us be aware of what is happening right now and right here—in our body, in our feelings, in our perceptions, and around us.

With mindfulness, you can recognize the presence of the suffering in you and in the world. And it’s with that same energy that you tenderly embrace the suffering. By being aware of your in-breath and out-breath you generate the energy of mindfulness, so you can continue to cradle the suffering. Practitioners of mindfulness can help and support each other in recognizing, embracing, and transforming suffering. With mindfulness we are no longer afraid of pain. We can even go further and make good use of suffering to generate the energy of understanding and compassion that heals us and we can help others to heal and be happy as well.

Generating Mindfulness

The way we start producing the medicine of mindfulness is by stopping and taking a conscious breath, giving our complete attention to our in-breath and our out-breath. When we stop and take a breath in this way, we unite body and mind and come back home to ourselves. We feel our bodies more fully. We are truly alive only when the mind is with the body. The great news is that oneness of body and mind can be realized just by one in-breath. Maybe we have not been kind enough to our body for some time. Recog-nizing the tension, the pain, the stress in our body, we can bathe it in our mindful awareness, and that is the beginning of healing.

If we take care of the suffering inside us, we have more clarity, energy, and strength to help address the suffering of our loved ones, as well as the suffering in our community and the world. If, however, we are preoccupied with the fear and despair in us, we can’t help remove the suffering of others. There is an art to suffering well. If we know how to take care of our suffering, we not only suffer much, much less, we also create more happiness around us and in the world.

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Don’t Always Trust Your Perceptions

Excerpt of “Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living” by Thich Nhat Hanh

Breathing in, I see myself as still water.
Breathing out, I reflect things as they are.

Near the mountain, there is a lake with clear, still water reflecting the mountain and the sky with pristine clarity. You can do the same. If you are calm and still enough, you can reflect the mountain, the blue sky, and the moon exactly as they are. You reflect whatever you see exactly as it is, without distorting anything.

Have you ever seen yourself in a mirror that distorts the image? Your face is long, your eyes are huge, and your legs are really short. Don’t be like that mirror. It is better to be like the still water on the mountain lake.

We often do not reflect things clearly, and we suffer because of our wrong perceptions. Suppose you are walking in the twilight and see a snake. You scream and run into the house to get your friends, and all of you run outside with a flashlight. But when you shine your light on the snake, you discover that it isn’t a snake at all, just a piece of rope. This is a distorted perception.

When we see things or listen to other people, we often don’t see clearly or really listen. We see and hear our projections and our prejudices. We are not clear enough, and we have a wrong perception. Even if our friend is giving us a compliment, we may argue with him because we distort what he says.

If we are not calm, if we only listen to our hopes or our anger, we will not be able to receive the truth that is trying to reflect itself on our lake. We need to make our water still if we want to receive reality as it is. If you feel agitated, don’t do or say anything. Just breathe in and out until you are calm enough. Then ask your friend to repeat what he has said. This will avoid a lot of damage. Stillness is the foundation of understanding and insight. Stillness is strength.

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Kindness

Kindness
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

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What is the Equality Complex?

Thay answers question on June 21 2014 in Plum Village.

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Inclusiveness

You open your heart to include the other side. You want to give them the opportunity to live in peace, as you wish to live.

Each of us must ask ourselves, how large is my heart? How can I help my heart grow bigger and bigger everyday?

The practice of inclusiveness is based on the practice of understanding, compassion, and love.  When you practice looking deeply to understand suffering, the nectar of compassion will arise naturally in your heart. Loving-kindness and compassion can continue to grouw indefinitely, and  with enough understanding and loved you can embrace and accept everything and everyone.

If we truly want to live in peace, safety , and security, we must create an opportunity for those on the other side to live this way as well. If we know how to allow the other side into our heart, if we have that intention, we not only suffer less right away but we also increase our own chances of having peace and security.

When we’re motivated by the intention to practice inclusiveness, it becomes very easy to ask, “How can we best help you so that you can injoy safety? Please tells.” We express our concern for their safety, their need to live in peace, to rebuild their country, to strengthen their society. When you are able to approach a situation of conflict in this way, it can help transform the situation very quickly.

The basis for this transformation, the first thing that must happen, is the change withing your own heart. You open your heart to include the other side; you want to give them the opportunity to live in peaces, as you wish to live.

Societies and nations that are locked in conflict need to learn the practice of inclusiveness if they really want to find a way to live together in peace. Can our side accept the fact that the other side also needs a place to live and the safety and stability that can guarantee a peaceful and prosperous society? When we look deeply in the situation of those on the other side, we see that they are just like us – they also want only to have  place where they can live in safety and peace. Understanding our own suffering and our own hopes can lead to understanding the suffering and hopes of the other group.

We know that if the other side does not have peace and safety, then it will not be possible for us to have peace and safety. That is the nature of interbeing. With this insight we’ll be able to open our hearts and embrace the other side.

Excerpt from “Peacful Action, Open Heart” by Thich Nhat Hanh

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Scorpion Nature

Excerpt from Mindfulness Bell “Scorpion Nature” by Sister Dang Nghiem

There is a story about a scorpion and a frog. One day, the scorpion needs to cross a pond. So the scorpion tells the frog, “Frog, my friend, would you please take me across the pond?” The frog replies, “Well, I want to be helpful to you, but what if you sting me midway? I will die.” The scorpion says, “Why would I do that? If I sting you, you’ll die and I’ll die too.” The frog feels reassured, so it says, “Okay, that is reasonable. I do not mind carrying you across the pond. You can jump up.” The scorpion jumps on the back of the frog, and the frog gets into the water and begins to swim. Everything is going well until, halfway across the pond, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog is in deep pain, and as it is drowning, it cries out to the scorpion, “Why did you sting me? Now I’ll die, and you are going to die, too.” The scorpion replies, “I know that, but I cannot help myself. It is my scorpion nature.”

When the scorpion stings the frog, it knows that it is going to harm itself and the frog, and yet it still does it; that is the scorpion nature. Do we have scorpion nature? What is our scorpion nature? Certain things we do and say, certain thoughts we have—we know that they are not going to help anybody, including ourselves, and yet we still do them. Why is that? It is because we cannot help it; we simply cannot resist it.

One time, Thay said to me, “It is not an issue whether you like it or not.” I did not understand what he meant, but I did not like what he said. However, out of total respect and confidence in my teacher, I received his teaching and kept it in my mind. After a few years, suddenly it came to me: when we like something or we do not like something, that is our habit energy, and it is already ingrained in us. “I like this color. I hate that color.” “I want this iPad.” “I want to sleep in, and I don’t want to wake up early in the morning to go to sitting meditation.” “I need another degree.” “I need another outfit.” There are things that we like and things that we do not like. There are things that we want and things that we do not want. These likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, needs and not-needs are clearly defined in our minds. We can understand this as our scorpion nature, driving us to think, speak, and behave reflexively.

In medical school, when I rotated through the hospital ward with patients with Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and other chronic intestinal problems, I was told that they could be the most irritable and needy patients. Now I can understand this phenomenon from an insider’s perspective. Chronic physical pain can cause a person to feel uncomfortable, restless, irritable, and reactive. When you are sick for a long time, your family members and friends become used to your illness, so they may not pay as much attention to you. It is easy to feel lonely, deserted, depressed, and needy as a result. If people say something insensitive or unskillful, you may replay their words a thousand times, harboring feelings of unworthiness, disappointment, resentment, and even hatred. All of these emotions are harsh and powerful, and they can cause your speech and bodily actions to be unpleasant and difficult for others to tolerate. Therefore, others avoid you, and your negative feelings are confirmed and strengthened, creating a vicious cycle. These fleeting feelings, if fed day after day, can become our attitudes and then our personality.

From my own illness, I have learned to pay close attention to my likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, needs and not-needs. For example, monastic brothers and sisters are preparing to go hiking. Usually I would not miss a chance to go hiking, but when my energy level is low, the thought of walking under the sun for a long distance feels repugnant, and the mind translates this feeling with conviction: “I don’t want to go hiking.” It even goes so far as to say, “I don’t like hiking anymore.” Aware of this thought, I breathe and smile, returning my mind to right view: “It is not that I don’t want to go hiking or that I don’t like hiking. I simply do not have enough energy to do that right now. Perhaps I will have enough energy to do it tomorrow or some other time.” When you are not well, you find yourself not wanting to do many things and not liking many people. It is important to recognize the reason behind your likes and dislikes and not to identify yourself with these feelings, which can mold you into a certain personality.

Transforming Scorpion Nature

Mindfulness will help us to recognize our Buddha nature as well as our scorpion nature as they are. Walking meditation is one of the practices that can help us to transform our scorpion nature. The cultivation of gratitude is essential to the transformation of our suffering.

There is a practice called “tri tuc,” meaning you know that you have enough. “Tri” means “to know, to master, to remember,” and “tuc” means “enough.” Interestingly, this character “tuc” also means “feet.” You remember that you have enough and you master what you have. It also means you remember that you have feet, and you master your feet! In your daily life, do you have awareness that you have feet? When you walk across the parking lot or around your office, do you have mastery of your steps?

To know that we have feet—that is enough to make us happy. Therefore, our feet symbolize all the conditions of happiness that are available to us right here and right now. Without mindfulness, we take what we have for granted, and we feel forever impoverished. We can even take the mindfulness practice for granted; as a result, we are actually less fortunate than those who are sincerely seeking a spiritual path. With awareness of our steps, of our bodily movements, of the in-breaths and out-breaths, we train to dwell stably and gratefully in the present moment. This is also a concrete way to check whether we are practicing correctly and authentically or not.

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