Reflections on the application of Mindfulness of Breathing

The last two posts are about Mindfulness of Breathing as taught by the Buddha and interpreted by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – one in written form and the other as part of a talk. I wanted to write a little about my interpretation of his work.

The 16 stage breath meditation starts with a very accessible practice – feeling the breath at the level of the body and noticing whether the breath is long or short. Essentially, a basic exercise to focus the mind on the breathing, akin to practices we have all done, such as counting the breath, watching the abdomen rise and fall, etc. One moves through various stages, focusing on the breath but being aware of the entire body – which reminds me of Goenka’s style of meditation and body scanning – to noticing the feelings of relaxation and joy associated with [watching] the breath, to becoming aware of the mind while watching the breath, and so on.

The process is one of becoming aware of deeper and more subtle levels of experience. We go from noticing the body, in and of itself, to the more subtle feelings in and of themselves and thoughts in and of themselves. Seeing something “in-and-of-itsef” means for example: feeling an actual body sensation (as opposed to worrying about your leg), or recognizing a thought as a thought, instead of focusing on the content matter of that thought. When we get this clear about something, we see its changing nature, we see it as phenomena, come to know it as unreliable in terms of providing an ultimate ground for our happiness, develop dispassion for it through investigation, familiarity, discernment, non-identification and allow it to dissipate within awareness. My own understanding is that this is how one’s body becomes still, how one’s mind quiets down and how one “gets out of one’s own way” through the practice of meditation.

I’ll say this again, in a slightly different way to help it sink in. How do we get to more subtle levels of experience? How do we drop the more gross levels, so we can become aware of and drop into the more subtle ones? The direct experience of the thing-in-itself at each level is held in awareness, with equinimity and an aim to developing a dispassion, calm, and a deep familiarity with it – how it comes into being, sustains, and passes. We come to see what are it’s causes – what fabrications or doings of the body or mind are feeding the experiences. Wherever we find “stress” at any level, we cease feeding it. We infuse it with subtle awareness and a kind attention and let it calm down. We see into the phenomena at each level and by penetrating it with equanimity and we drop it. We release it.

We can apply the same tools of mindfulness, awareness, great persistence and ardency (which is a dedication to following the path and a discrimination that allows one to focus their efforts skillfully) to the subtlest levels. The deeper levels of experience begin to deal less with form, words or even thoughts themselves, but go deeper into a direct experience of the elements that make up the chain of interdependent co-arising, like perception, formation, and consciousness itself. When each of these is seen as conditioned and impermanent, it is penetrated, dropped and abandoned. The bonds of reality fall apart. The last thing to go is the application of the Dharma itself, as all has been surpassed and there is no function for the tools known as Dharma to operate on… the very activity that brought you there must be seen finally as an activity, as conditioned, as not-self and relinquished. This process leads to a total release from the bondage of Samsara.

And there you have it. Just a few easy steps.

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