An Antidote for Too Much Thinking: Breathing Exercises

(Extrapolated from the Sitting Dhyana Samadhi Sutra)

For beginners, focus on counting your breaths from one to ten. For more advanced practitioners, follow the breaths and count from one to ten, but stop thinking when breathing pauses. For the most advanced practitioners, count while pausing and contemplating; the practice becomes holistic and pure. For example, when an inhalation concludes, count “one” and when an exhalation concludes, count “two.” If you count a breath before it completes, you start with one again.

Counting is the easiest way for us to learn about impermanence, to stop our flurry of thoughts and to focus. The body and mind’s coming into being and ceasing to be are impermanent but difficult to see as they continue. However, the impermanence of the coming into being and the ceasing to be of inhalations and exhalations is easier to detect and understand. When you concentrate on counting, all other thoughts stop, including thoughts of desire, anger, vexation, relatives, nations, and immortality. These thoughts are like the pebbles that a gold digger must first filter before he proceeds to sift through the finer grains for sands of gold.

Though other practices also allow us to let go of thought and are more relaxing and easier to focus, we practice counting the breath because it is quick-paced and easily detracts. Why? Consider the task of tending ox, for example. A rancher rarely loses an oxen, so he does not guard a herd too closely. Monkeys, on the other hand, are easily lost, so they are guarded more closely. Similarly, while counting in our heads our breaths, we cannot think about anything else even for a moment; we would lose count if we did. This is why we count our breaths when first trying to let go of thoughts. Once we know the counting method, we may practice letting go of all thoughts. At that point, follow an inhalation to its completion but do not verbalize “one” in your head. Follow an exhalation to its completion but do not count “two.” Contemplate like a creditor who initially pursues a debtor without parting for a moment. You will be able to tell the difference between inhalations and exhalations then because exhalations are warm while inhalations are cool.

Exhalations occur because the mind stirs. Once exhaled, it ceases. When the nose and mouth suck outside air, breath enters. Once inhaled, breath ceases. There is nothing that is about to be released and nothing to enter. Notice the difference in breaths for those at different stages in life. Young people’s inhalations tend to be longer; those in their prime have even inhalations and exhalations; while the elderly tend to have longer exhalations. Therefore, a breath is not one continuous cycle.

Air generated from around the navel seems all the same and cyclical, but actually, the exhalation reaches the mouth and the nose and ceases. Just like a bellow, when it opens, air ceases. When the nose and mouth invite air in, it enters. Oxygen enters because a set of conditions come together. Similarly, the conditions for inhalations and exhalations are new each time; their coming into being and ceasing to be are impermanent. Contemplate how exhalations are led-in by the conditions of the nose and the mouth while the condition of the mind’s stirring produces inhalations. We may consider breaths “ours,” but breath is air and no different than any air outside; the same with the elements of earth, water, fire, and space.

Being mindful of inhalation and exhalation is called “following.” Once you are familiar with the method of following, practice “stopping” as a method, which means you stop counting when the mind is still. Counting the breath actually interrupts a steady mind. However, without mindfulness, the mind has nothing to do and therefore tends to lose focus. Like a guard at the door who observes the comings and goings of people, for example, the mind at a stop is the same: it knows when the breath is exhaled, going from the navel to the chest, throat, then the mouth and nose. When the breath is inhaled, it moves from the nose and mouth to the throat, chest, and then the navel. By fixing the mind on one thing, it is called “stopping.”

We can begin to notice some different aspects of the breath by being mindful. See whether inhalations and exhalations are long or short. Someone frightened or with a heavy load climbing up a mountain will have relatively short breaths. His breaths are longer when he gets some relief. We also want to notice how all breaths pervade the body. Our awareness covers the body from head to toe, seeping into all pores like water into sand. Contemplate the entire body and see that air travels throughout the pores, as if they were holes of lotus roots or fish nets. Furthermore, be mindful of not only the in and out breaths of the mouth and nose alone, but also observe inhalations and exhalations throughout all the pores and apertures. We will notice how breaths pervade and circulate the entire body.

In the early stages of learning to be mindful of inhalations and exhalations, we tend to give up when we feel lazy, sleepy or heavy. Actually, being mindful of our breaths reduces laxness, sleepiness, and heaviness of the mind. When we practice until we reach a lightness in the mind and a softening in the body, we experience joy. At that point, thoughts about inhalations stop; next, pain resulting from circulation ends because thoughts about the body stop. When thoughts about pain occur no more, we are really happy.

We can actually tell whether meditators are in a state of meditative absorption. In general, their faces are pleasant and lustrous. They stroll along uprightly without losing focus. Their eyes are not glued to form and they enjoy spiritual virtues and the power of samadhi. They are not greedy for fame or gain, but have conquered arrogance. They are gentle by nature, harboring no wish to harm or miserliness and envy. They are straightforward and trustworthy. Their minds are pure. They do not fight during arguments. They do not deceive with physical gestures and are approachable. They are tender with a sense of shame. Their mind is always on the Dharma. They diligently cultivate and uphold the precepts completely. They recite the sutras with proper thought and their thoughts accord with the Dharma practices. They are always joyous and do not become angry in situations eliciting anger. They do not accept any impure offerings among the four types of offerings. They accept pure donations and know their capacity and when to be content. They wake up feeling light and well. They give material goods and teachings and eliminate the deviant through patience. They are not conceited and rarely participate in arguments. They are humble and respectful toward seniors, peers and juniors. They always draw near and comply with good teachers and kind advisors. They know restraint in their diet and are not attached to desirable flavors. They enjoy being alone in quiet places and remain patient and unaffected by hardship or happiness. They do not resent or compete and do not enjoy fighting or litigation. We know those who have these characteristics have reached a singularly focused mind.

Bodhisattvas who see the way should practice patience. Not only are Bodhisattvas not affected, angry or hateful toward unfavorable mindstates and circumstances, they are even compassionate. All these beings wish for good things, so may they attain all they wish. Staying with these thoughts, Bodhisattvas gradually come to understand all dharmas. This is just like a kind mother’s love for her child. She feeds and raises the child. She does not consider the various impurities evil; but is doubly empathetic and wishes for the child’s happiness. Practitioners are the same way; all beings do all kinds of evil but practitioners do not detest, retreat or turn away from them. Gently bring the mind’s focus back to compassion. Do not retreat, and that is patience.