Meditation method 1—Watching the breath

The Buddha taught 84,000 different ways to tame and pacify the negative emotions. To put it simply, “negative” refers to emotions and afflictions. In Buddhism, there are countless methods of meditation. Three meditation techniques are particularly effective in the modem world that anyone can practice and benefit from. They are: “watching” the breath, using an object, and reciting a mantra or a Buddha’s name.

“Watching” the breath 

The first method is very ancient and found in all schools of Buddhism. It is to rest your attention, lightly and mindfully, on the breath. If watching the breath is difficult for you, you can count the breaths instead, as counting can be simpler. If your mind is too scattered, or you have never practiced meditation, you can count your breaths from one to ten, then from ten to one. By repeating this several times, you will gradually stop counting and begin to watch your breath.

Breath is the most fundamental expression of our life. The Buddha said, “Life exists in between breaths.” In the teaching of Buddha, the breath is said to be “the vehicle of the mind.” The mind rides on the breath. By working skillfully with the breath, you can calm the mind quickly. If your breathing is even, your mental distractions and drowsiness will stop. Meanwhile you are taming and training the mind. For beginners or lay practitioners with many tasks to take care of, the best way to calm the mind is watching the breath. When we are disturbed by anxiety or afflictions, to be alone for a few minutes and just breathe, in and out, deeply and quietly, can gradually relax our mind. Once the mind gradually calms down, introspection and mindfulness will naturally arise. At this point, it becomes easier for us to reflect on where we went wrong, carefully observe the mistakes in our mind, know how to repent, and perhaps even notice more subtle afflictions.

Even such a simple exercise can help us a great deal. So when you meditate, breathe naturally, just as you always do. Focus your awareness lightly on the out-breath. Each time you breathe out, you are letting go and releasing all your grasping. Imagine your breath dissolving into the all pervading emptiness. Each time you breathe out and before you breathe in again, you will find that there will be a natural gap, as the grasping dissolves. Rest in that gap, in that open state. And when, naturally, you breathe in, don’t focus especially on the in-breath but go on resting your mind in the gap that has opened up.

When breathing in, we can also mindfully meditate on plurality, impurity, impermanence, non-self, and compassion, with the methods we have learned. When breathing out, we can extend our mindfulness, which is a relaxed and released state. For example, when we meditate on impermanence – the impermanence of all phenomena including our thoughts, and then breathe out, we will feel relaxed and released. When you are practicing, it’s important not to get involved in mental commentary, analysis, or internal gossip. This is “watching” the breath. Don’t mistake the running commentary in your mind (“Now I am breathing, I’m breathing in, I’m breathing out”) for mindfulness. This discrimination is not right. What is important is pure presence.

For beginners, it’s enough to place 75% of your attention on the breath, and another 25% on mindfulness. After being mindful, you will slowly enter a relaxed, calm, and spacious state. Gradually, you can just place 25% of your attention on the breath, and the rest 75% is left abiding in a relaxed, calm, and spacious state. As we become more mindful of our breathing, we will find that we become more and more present. Rather than “watching” the breath, let yourself gradually identify with it, as if you were becoming it. Slowly the breath, the breather, and the breathing become one; duality and separation dissolve. We will find that this very simple process of mindfulness filters our thoughts and emotions. Then, as if we were shedding an old skin, something is peeled off and freed.

Whether we experience desire or anger, the internal heat rises upward, causing the heart chakra to heat up. We start to feel restless, agitated, lost, or heavy-headed. When afflictions such as desire and anger gradually pacify, the “CV 17” acupoint becomes cool, the lower dantian is warm and comfortable, and the upper body and the head are cool. This is the physical feeling while watching the breath. After the mind has calmed down, we can practice some mindfulness, which can help our mind enter a better state.

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