The Noble Eightfold Blog

Breath Meditation

by Eric Van Horn

Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn

for free distribution

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Table of Contents

Focusing on the Breath

Bhikkhus, when mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it is of great fruit and great benefit. When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it fulfills the four foundations of mindfulness. When the four foundations of mindfulness are developed and cultivated, they fulfill the seven enlightenment factors. When the seven enlightenment factors are developed and cultivated, they fulfill true knowledge and deliverance. - [MN 118.15]

Once you have established both a physical posture and a mental posture, the next step is to turn your attention to the breath.

There are many objects of meditation. The commentarial work the Visuddhimagga lists 40 such objects. However, from the time of the Buddha the breath has been the most used and most common object of meditation. The Buddha’s most complete instructions on meditation are in the "Ānāpānasati Sutta: Mindfulness of Breathing" [MN 118].

The Buddha never gives specific instructions on where in the body to do this. And in future lessons we will discuss various places to follow the breath. But for now, start by following it at the nostrils. There you can feel the air moving in and out of the body.

Some years ago I went to a retreat with the Viet Namese monk Thich Nhat Hahn where he said that in all the decades in which he had done breath meditation, the breath had always been fascinating, and it had never become boring. At the time, frankly, I could not imagine that. But as the years have gone by, I have seen that what the breath reveals is infinite.

The first thing to do in following the breath at the nostrils is to find the places where the breath is felt most strongly. This may be at the tips of the nostrils, farther up in the nose, just below the nose, at the upper lip, etc. You may feel it at one place on the in-breath and another on the out-breath. And at different sittings, you may feel it at different spots. So start every sitting by finding the precise location where you feel the breath most strongly.

As you do this, you may notice that a single breath can be broken into parts. Before the next in-breath, there is often a pause, a still moment when the breath is not moving in or out. Then you begin the in-breath, and the breath at this point may feel very faint. Next you move into the middle part of the breath, followed by the end of the in-breath.

Some people feel a slight pause between the in-breath and the out-breath. Then the out-breath, likewise, has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In order to see these parts you must follow the breath all the way in, and all the way out. This is the fundamental way to do breath meditation.

Expanding the Awareness

As the mind and body get more settled, you may find your awareness naturally expanding to fill the whole body. This is the desired result. If you do not experience this at this point, that is fine. Do not worry about. But at some point you will probably feel this happening. It is an expanded sense of awareness.

This expanded sense of awareness is very important in breath meditation, and it is what the Buddha himself taught. In the Ānāpānasati Sutta, the first three steps are given as follows:

Breathing in long, [the meditator] discerns, 'I am breathing in long'; or breathing out long, he discerns, 'I am breathing out long.' Or breathing in short, he discerns, 'I am breathing in short'; or breathing out short, he discerns, 'I am breathing out short.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.' - [MN 118.18]

What I am calling "the breath" is really "breath energy". When you breathe in and out, the breath energy can be experienced anywhere in the body. You may want to play with this a little to confirm what I am saying. Put your attention somewhere else for a few breaths. It could be anywhere: the hands, the center of the chest, the throat, the soles of the feet. You can feel how breathing in and breathing out can be sensed anywhere in the body.

This introduces a couple of very important topics. The first is playing with the breath. Meditation is about learning. Larry Rosenberg says that in Buddhist meditation, we learn our way out of suffering. Here we are beginning to learn about our bodies and the breath. You may have heard the instruction to simply be with the breath. That is certainly one way to meditate, and it can be quite wonderful. But personally I think that type of practice is very difficult to do in the beginning. Most of the Buddha’s instructions are, in fact, what I call "active meditation". This means that you are not simply observing what is going on. You are actually doing something with the breath.

The other important topic is how you can feel the breath anywhere in the body. A further refinement is to play with different types of breathing to see what effect they have. You can breathe short on the in-breath and long on the out-breath. You can reverse that. You can breathe short on both the in-breath and the out-breath, and likewise breathe long on the in-breath and the out-breath. This begins to give you a sense of the range of experience you can have using the breath. It becomes an active part of your meditative toolbox. You can get to know the effects of different kinds of breathing, and you can use them as necessary. When the mind is dull, apply the appropriate breath antidote. When the mind is restless, likewise. This is how you begin to make the mind workable.

Most of us live our lives at the mercy of our habits and conditioning. They are in control. Meditation is a way to train the mind in order for us to get that control back. Usually our thoughts and emotions are in charge.

The way I described allowing the attention to expand to fill the whole body is a passive way to do this. You just let it happen naturally. However, you can also try to do this actively. Take your attention on the breath and expand it to fill the body. If this does not work for you at this point, do not worry about it. Just know that this is possible.

Finally, on the out-breath try to breath out through the entire body. It is as if the physical body is inside a cocoon of energy. As with all of these practices, if you cannot feel this do not worry about it. Just breath out in whatever way you find pleasant. But know that eventually this feeling of bodily breath energy may actually become stronger than your feeling of the physical body. The sense of the physical body will fade into the background, and the sense of the “breath body” will become strong.

Coming Back to the Breath

Inevitably your attention will wander. We have a lifetime of experience doing that, and in the modern world we have raised the quality of distraction to high art. Reversing that trend will take time.

When you see that your mind has wandered off of the breath, the first thing to do is see this is a good thing. It is a moment of awareness. This is one of the things we are trying to cultivate. Most people never have a moment like this. Congratulate yourself.

Next you want to bring your attention back to the breath. How you do this is extremely important. You want to take several pleasant breaths. Breathe in a way that feels good.

Ajahn Brahm – who is the abbot of Bodhinyana monastery in Australia – uses the term the "beautiful breath". What constitutes the beautiful breath depends on the circumstances. If you are feeling a lot of stress, the beautiful breath may be very deep and long. In other circumstances it may be short, or short in and long out. This is part of the skill of meditation. You are developing skills. But you have to be the one who knows how and when to use these skills. Meditation is a uniquely personal thing.

There is both an art and a craft to meditation. If you take 20 gifted young artists, and you put them into an art school, and they all take the same courses, still no two of them will produce the same art. You are learning skills, getting to know the mind, and putting some tools in your meditative toolbox. That is the craft of meditation. However, eventually you will become an artist. That is when your unique path in meditation will become very personal, and that will start to happen very early in the process.

Quieting the Mind

The final step in these instructions is to quiet the mind. This is not easy. A great deal of meditation time is spent trying to quiet the mind.

A mind that is always racing about is not a very good instrument. In order to see the things that we need to see, the mind must be quiet.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikku says that quieting the mind is like going into a house where the refrigerator is running. When it stops running, suddenly you hear all the other noises that you could not hear before. In order to see the subtle things that we need to see, we need to get the mind to settle down.

Serenity, tranquility and calm also have many other benefits. We are less reactive. We are less self-centered. We begin to connect more with people. We are more compassionate and understanding. We have less anxiety, anger, fear. We crave less. We are more at peace with the world. We are more at peace with ourselves. The quiet mind is wiser and more skillful. The benefits are almost endless.

In the next chapter I will describe other methods for getting the mind more concentrated. However, everything that follows is an expansion of what is here. We start by focusing our attention on a single spot, which at this stage is the nose. Then we expand our awareness to the whole body. Then we expand it still further to the mind, to get it quieter. These three things are kept in balance. In the first phase of meditation training, this is the objective.

Watching Your Thoughts

I will, however, give you something else to play with here. You may not be able to see this at first, but you can actually watch your thoughts. Normally in breath meditation, most – but not all – of your attention is on the breath. The rest of your attention – your background attention – focuses on everything else. This background attention is always present. It is why you can be doing one thing and suddenly see something else, like a car driving by.

Larry Rosenberg uses the 80-20 rule; 80% of your attention is on the breath, and 20% is on everything else.

However, you can also reverse that percentage, and put 20% of your attention on the breath, and 80% on something else. This is one of the fundamental principles in ānāpānasati, mindfulness of breathing. We start by making the breath the object of meditation. Then we use the breath as a way to stabilize the mind – to give it a kind of rhythm, a heart beat – in order to look at other things. In this case we have already done that by expanding our awareness to the whole body.

In the case of our thoughts, we put 20% of the attention on the breath, and the other 80% on our minds. Then you can see thoughts actually forming. Like everything else in life, they have a beginning, a middle and an end. One of the things you can use this type of meditation for is to quiet the mind. Sometimes – not always – by watching the thoughts, they will go away.

What usually happens when you think is that one thought arises, and this begins a proliferation of thoughts. You are watching the breath, and a thought arises, and suddenly your attention to the breath is lost, and you are chasing the thought stream. You get lost in an entire world that exists only in your mind.

Watching your thoughts has almost endless possibilities. You can see where in the mind a thought arises. You can catch the thought so it does not proliferate. Even more subtly you can stop it dead in its racks. You can actually keep it from finishing. It is a fascinating process.

You have probably guessed that this is not easy. However, I introduce it here as another way to get the mind a little quieter. If focusing on the breath is not working, you may try simply watching your thoughts.

Dedication of Merit

Bhikkhus, there are these three bases of meritorious activity. What three? The basis of meritorious activity consisting in giving; the basis of meritorious activity consisting in virtuous behavior; and the basis of meritorious activity consisting in meditative development. - [AN 8.36]

One of the traditions in Buddhism is "making merit". As you can see from the Buddha's words, this is done in three ways: generosity, virtue, and the practice of meditation. Every time that you meditate, you are making merit for yourself and others. It is another way of saying that you are creating good karma.

It is customary at the end of a meditation session to dedicate the merit of your effort to all beings. Thus the effort that goes into meditation is not just for yourself, it is for the health and well-being of everyone.

There are a number of ways of dedicating merit. At the Abhayagiry Monastery in California they chant the "Reflection on Sharing Blessings". You can also simply recite these words:

"May the merit of this effort be shared by all beings, so that they may be liberated."

This brings us full circle to when we established a mental posture, and remembered why we practice. It is for our own happiness, and for the happiness of all beings.

In addition, you may dedicate the merit of your meditation to a specific person. This person may be alive or dead. You can do this for someone who is going through a difficult time, or someone who died to whom you want to send positive karmic energy. You can do this in any way that you like, something like:

"May the merit of this effort be dedicated to [someone], so that they may find peace and harmony."

The words can be whatever you want.

Finally, as you get up from your meditation, stay in touch with the breath. Do this throughout the day. Keep coming back to the breath as a way of connecting to the present moment. And also keep the good spirit in your heart that comes from the dedication of merit. By meditating you are doing a noble act with a noble intention.


This chapter introduces the fundamental approach to breath meditation:

  1. Find a spot on which to focus and watch the breath coming in and out.
  2. Passively or actively expand the attention to include the whole body.
  3. When the mind wanders, bring your attention back to the breath by breathing in a way that feels good.
  4. When you feel it is possible, further expand your awareness to include the mind to get the mind to settle down.
  5. Try watching your thoughts as a way to quiet the mind.
  6. When your meditation period ends, dedicate the merit of your effort to all beings.