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Godwin Samararatne
Introduction to Meditation

Talks in Hong Kong - Day 4, 9th October 1997

Mindfulness of Breathing


Godwin: I would like to welcome you once again. The talk this evening is about focusing our attention on our in-breath and our out-breath. This is one of the most well-known and popular meditation techniques in all the Buddhist traditions. And it is also said that the Buddha became enlightened with the help of this technique. So let us see why this technique is so important.

Know What Is Happening

In this meditation the whole emphasis is on developing awareness and developing mindfulness. As we know, breathing takes place automatically. So concerning what is happening automatically, we are trying to develop mindfulness, awareness. And as the whole emphasis is on mindfulness, what is very important for you to remember is that whatever is happening in our mind and body when we are practising this technique, we should learn just to know, just to be mindful, just to be conscious of what is happening.

So when you have thoughts please don't consider them as a disturbance or as a distraction, but rather be aware that you are having thoughts. If you are hearing sounds just know you are hearing sounds. If you are feeling different sensations in the body, whatever sensations you are experiencing, just know that you are experiencing those sensations. So you know these things are happening, you become mindful of these things and then just come back to your breath.

There is no need to have a battle when you are meditating using this technique. I often say that you have enough battles in life, please do not make meditation into another battle! The whole idea of meditation is to experience freedom, to experience joy, to experience lightness, to be free of suffering, but if you make it a battle meditation itself becomes a source of suffering. So please remember this, please realise this, that the whole emphasis of this technique is on just knowing or just being mindful or just being conscious of what is happening, and then to spend more and more time with your breath, without a battle.

Experience the Present Moment

Another very important aspect of this technique is that it helps us to experience the present moment, even for a few minutes. Because breathing is always taking place now, it is always happening now, if we are mindful or conscious of breathing even for a few minutes we can experience what it is to be here, what it is to be present. Otherwise most of the time we are lost in either the past or the future and we even don't know whether we are in the past or the future. So there can be lot of confusion, a lot of disorder in our minds but this technique helps us to experience being in the present, even if only for a few moments.

See Our Breath as Our Friend

Another important point to remember is that we need to make a connection with our breath, and the way we can make a connection with our breath is to see our breath as our friend. So let us see in what way the breath is our friend. One thing is that he or she is the only friend who is with us all the time. I don't think we have any other friend who is with us all the time. So breath is the only friend who is with us all the time, always. Another reason is that even when we are sleeping our friend is active. Do you have any friends who will be with you when you are sleeping? But the breath, whether you are sleeping or whether you are not sleeping, it's always with you.

Our Friend Helps Us to Recover

Another reason why he or she is our best friend is, as I said earlier, that it is always helping us to experience the present moment. And the moments you experience the present moment, those moments are moments of freedom. Related to that is that with our friend the breath, whenever you are having an emotion, if at that moment you think of your friend, there is an immediate recovery from that emotion and then you can experience some space because you have come back to the present moment. Please try that.

A friend of mine told me yesterday that when he is waiting at the traffic lights he becomes impatient. I think we can all relate to this situation, especially when you are late for an appointment and you see only the red light. So poor red light! You can be angry at the red light, you can be impatient about the red light, and this can create lots of suffering for you. So I told my friend: the next time you find yourself in such a situation, just relax, spend some time with your breath. So earlier you were hating the red light, but now you can feel grateful for the red light because thanks to the red light, you can be with your friend, the breath!

So I would like to repeat that whenever you are having any unpleasant emotions - it can be stress, it can be anger, it can be fear, it can be anxiety, it can be guilt, any unpleasant emotion that creates our suffering - no sooner than you think of your friend and spend some time with the in-breath and the out-breath, what happens to that emotion? I will tell you a simple reason why we can find relief in such a situation. The simple reason is that when we are having an emotion, what makes it bigger, what makes it worse are our thoughts. So that in such a situation, if you can spend a few minutes with our friend there is no room for thoughts to arise and there is an immediate recovery.

Our Friend Can Help Us When We Die

Another moment, a very important moment when our friend can help us, is at the time we die. In fact in one of the texts it is said that if you learn to practise this technique and if you learn to make a connection with your breath, at the moment you are dying, if you are conscious, immediately your attention can come to the breath. I'm very much interested in the work people do with dying people, helping people to die peacefully. It is interesting that one of the techniques they use is focusing on breathing. So isn't it really valuable: our friend helps us to live peacefully and helps us to die peacefully.

Forget Our Identification

Another beautiful aspect of our friend is that when we are with our friend even for a few minutes all our identifications, that we are Chinese, Sri Lankan, German, English, all this is forgotten. In this world there are these different divisions, racial divisions, religious divisions. Some of the problems in the modern world arise because people emphasise these divisions. So when you are with the breath all these identifications drop away and then it is just the in-breath and the out-breath. So breathing is just breathing; whether it is a Buddhist, whether it is a Christian, whether it is a Hindu - there is just the breath.

Experience Calmness & Wisdom

Another aspect is that when we are with the breath we can experience some calm, some space, some stillness in our mind. In Buddhist terms this aspect is described as samatha, which is calm, tranquillity, stillness. So it is interesting that this technique has the aspect of experiencing samatha, calm, and also it helps us to experience some insight, some wisdom. As I said, it helps us to see thoughts as just thoughts, just to mirror our thoughts; just experiencing sensations, just experiencing sounds, so that we can have this very important insight: learning to see things just as they are.

How This Technique Helps Us

An interesting question is: does this technique help us in everyday life or does it only help us when we are sitting on a cushion? So I would suggest that whilst sitting, we gain this insight, we develop these skills, we develop awareness, we develop a non-reactive, equanimous mind; and then what is more important is to have such a mind in everyday life.

So what I have tried to do in this talk is to present some points, some aspects about the importance of this technique of being aware of our breathing. Maybe there are more points but I think I have no time left. I would now like to invite any questions about what has been said and any questions about this practice.

Questions and Answers

Retreatant: I would like to know what is the difference between the meditation we are learning now and the meditation that is taught by other religions?

Godwin: It's a very theoretical question, and I always prefer simple, practical questions but still I will respond to that theoretical question. When you say other religions, it can include so many religions. So in religion there is always some emphasis on meditation, there is always an emphasis on making the mind calm and making the mind still. In fact in Christianity there is this beautiful saying: Be still and know that I am God. So that in different religions they may use different techniques but the principle is the same: using those techniques to experience some calmness, some stillness, and some spaciousness.

Another similarity is that in any tradition where there is meditation there has to be an element of awareness, there has to be an element of knowing and understanding what is happening in the mind. So I would suggest that these two aspects are there in any spiritual tradition where there is meditation.

Anything else? I would like some practical questions relating to the technique.

Retreatant: How can I know what to do with the breathing and how to feel the effects of the breathing?

Godwin: You don't have to experience the effects of breathing. In fact when I give a guided meditation I will try to suggest what has to be done. What has to be done is something very simple. Just feel what happens when the body is breathing. So using the sensations and the movements in the body to be conscious, to be aware. I would like to repeat that you don't have to do anything special. It is just being conscious of your in-breath and your out-breath.

Retreatant: When we are meditating we may feel tired and sleepy. What should we do in that situation?

Godwin: Very good, practical question. So one suggestion is, just open your eyes. Another is, it is emphasised in the Buddhist texts, to have your spine erect. So if you can have your spine erect then you do not normally feel sleepy or drowsy. Another suggestion is, you are welcome to stand up. So you can try some of these things and see if they work. Anything else?

Retreatant: The first question is, in Chinese we say that we have got only one mind and we cannot use one mind for two things at the same time. And during our daily life we have to attend work and most of the time we are very busy, so how can we deal with our work and make friends with our breathing at the same time?

And the second question is, you said earlier that breathing is our best friend and is with us all the time even when we are sleeping, so when we have dreams or when we are in deep sleep how can we take care of our breathing at that time?

Godwin: I'll start with the last question. What is interesting about our friend is that there are times when we can ignore it. Because when we are dreaming and when we are sleeping, in order to think of our breath we have to have awareness and consciousness. If you are a very advanced meditator you can have some element of awareness while you are sleeping and dreaming, otherwise where is the person who is having awareness when they are sleeping and dreaming? So my response is, this is a situation where you can just leave our friend alone and he or she would not mind it at all.

So the first question was that in everyday life we have to do many different things. Now when we have to do different things, how can we do these different things and still take care of our friend? As I said, to think of your friend you have to stop your work. This is why I said when the traffic lights are red, when you are just doing nothing, just be conscious of your friend, rather than being impatient about the red light. When you are having a particular emotion and when you are bothered by that emotion, at that moment you will not be trying to do different things and so then just come back to the breath.

Now I would like to respond to the question: what we might try to do as meditators when we have to do many different things. So here what happens is that when we have to do various things we might have the idea: I have to do many things but it is possible I might make a mistake. Sometimes this is what creates the tension. As I said yesterday, in cultures where the emphasis is on doing things perfectly, correctly, you always want to do everything perfectly. So I think in such situations, if you can just let go of this idea of perfection this can be helpful. This is one suggestion.

Another interesting point is that although we have to do different things, we can, as you rightly said, do only one thing at a time. So that if we can learn to be conscious of whatever we are doing in any particular situation, then one can develop what is called moment-to-moment awareness in relation to what has to be done.

Maybe one last suggestion which can be very helpful is that when you are working, when you have to do many different things, as I said earlier, what is important is to become conscious of your state of mind. Are you anxious, are you stressed, are you insecure, or are you relaxed? So it is very important for those of you who are really interested in everyday practice to constantly check out your state of mind. Whether you are working or whether you are not working, try to develop this practice of constant watching, awareness of what is happening in your mind.

So when you have to do different things, after becoming aware of these different things just watch your state of mind. Is it reacting or is it responding? These are two very interesting words: reacting, responding. Responding is doing what is necessary without reacting. Reacting is getting anxious, getting fearful, getting stressed, tense and so on. So as you are still human and as you're still practising it is human that you will start to react in certain situations.

So if you are not able to be conscious at the time you are reacting, at least later on, when there is space, when there is clarity, when you have recovered from that emotion, can you look back and find out: why did I react? Why couldn't I have responded in that situation? Then as I said yesterday, we can learn from our mistakes, we can learn even from our reactions.

So this kind of inquiry has to be done without giving yourself a minus. You do have to do this kind of inquiry in a very friendly, gentle, playful way. And then you can experiment with it: you say, now tomorrow let me go to work and see what happens. Will I react, will I respond? And with any reaction, how long will it last? So you keep an open mind to see what is going to happen. These are very interesting, beautiful aspects of meditation, to see it as experimenting, experimenting with yourself. So when you try an experiment you don't take up a position. Without taking up a position, you're just learning, finding out, exploring. We can experiment, explore, and learn from any situation.

So there's time for one last question please.

Retreatant: When I am aware of myself being aware of the thoughts, then in that case I cannot concentrate on my meditation, so what can I do?

Godwin: So the question is, if I understood it correctly, if you are observing the thoughts that is not meditation. If that is not your question, what exactly was the point you didn't understand?

Interpreter: His question is, when he meditates he is aware of the passing thoughts and at that stage he is okay, he can still concentrate; but when he is aware that he is aware of the passing thoughts then that affects his concentration.

Godwin: So this is another point we have to think about, this word concentration. Those who have been listening to me carefully will notice I have not used the word concentration at all, but rather than concentration the words I use are awareness, mindfulness, just knowing. I purposely avoid the word concentration because this is what is creating the problem, this is what is creating the suffering. So what I would suggest is: if the mind is concentrated, just know that the mind is concentrated; and if the mind is not concentrated, just know the mind is not concentrated. Then what is the problem?

It is very important when we sit for meditation not to have an expectation, an idea, a model of what should happen or what should not happen. In the Zen tradition there is a beautiful word for it, to have a beginner's mind, or a don't-know mind. Expectation is what creates suffering in our life. When we have expectations and when things do not correspond to our expectations we suffer in life, and this is how suffering is created in meditation too. It is very interesting. So when we meditate without having any expectations we will just try to know what is happening from moment-to-moment.

And it is very important not to give plusses and minuses when we are meditating. So someone is expecting to concentrate and then when you think you are concentrated you give yourself a big plus and hold onto the concentration - that's how tension is created! And when the mind is not concentrated we give a big minus! So in meditation also we are rating ourselves, giving plusses, giving minuses, giving plusses, giving minuses. This is what we are doing in ordinary life, so at least in meditation please learn just to be open to whatever is happening.

So now I would like to suggest that you take a small break and during the break please make an effort to have mindfulness; and when you move around, please make an effort to move slowly and with awareness so that you begin preparing your mind for the meditation.

Please learn to walk slowly.

Guided Meditation

Godwin: Sit in a relaxed position. It is very important to sit with a relaxed body. Please realise we are not going to do something special, so you can just relax.

So let us spend some time with the body. Just feel the body. The different sensations, the different movements in your body.

If there are thoughts, just let go of the thoughts and come back to the body. Feeling the body is one thing, thinking about the body is another, please see the difference. Here we are learning to feel the body.

Let us learn to feel friendly and gentle and kind towards our body.

Let us now feel what it is to sit with our body completely still.

Now please allow the body to breathe naturally.

No need to control our breath or to manipulate our breathing, not trying to manipulate our natural breathing.

Let us spend a few minutes just learning to allow the body to do what it likes.

Now just feel what happens in the body when the body is breathing, the different sensations, the different movements in the body when the body is breathing.

Do you feel any sensation in the area of the nostrils? Do you feel any sensation in the area of the chest? Do you feel the rise and the fall of the abdomen?

Experiencing the present moment with the help of the sensations and movements in your body because they are happening now.

When the body is inhaling you know that the body is inhaling. When the body is exhaling you know that the body is exhaling.

Not thinking about the past, not thinking about the future. Experiencing the joy of the present moment with the help of the in-breath and the out-breath.

Please do not try to stop thoughts or control thoughts.

If thoughts are there, just know you are having thoughts and come back to your friend, the breath.

Just feel relaxed with the breath.

Let us feel friendly and gentle towards our mind and body.

No plusses to what is happening, no minuses to what is happening. Just knowing whatever is happening.

Now open your eyes slowly and when you change your posture do it slowly, consciously. And please don't think that the meditation is over. Just continue to know what is happening in the mind and body from moment-to-moment.

Now let us do some chanting. So when you are chanting, please keep your body still and don't make any other noise because chanting itself is a meditation. Like using the breath to experience the present moment, use the chanting to experience the present moment, and to create space in your mind through the chanting. I would like to suggest not to look at the paper because these are simple words and you will be able to pick up the words.