Mindfulness of Breathing on Retreat by Gil Fronsdal
When the Buddha went on a personal meditation retreat for three months, he explained that his practice was mindfulness of breathing. From that time until today, mindfulness of breathing has been an integral part of many Buddhist meditation retreats. Not only has it been an important thread passed down through the centuries, it can also be a very useful “thread” running through a single meditation retreat. Having mindfulness of breathing as a constant through the days of a retreat can be the midline that keeps us from swinging too far from the balance and stability of present moment attention. Repeatedly returning the attention to breathing can decrease the tendency for the mind to wander into the past or the future. It is a way to stay anchored in the present.On retreat, the instruction in mindfulness meditation usually begins by encouraging a simple, easeful attention to breathing. Trying too hard to concentrate on the breath can often be counterproductive. Rather than straining for 100% unwavering attention, it might be enough to have attention on the breathing 60-70% of the time. This gives ample opportunity to let go of distracting thoughts and begin again with attending to breathing. This letting go and starting again repeatedly is a massage for the mind; slowly the thinking mind relaxes and becomes less and less insistent. Thus, the art of meditating on the breathing is to repeatedly return to it as soon as we see that the mind has wandered off, rather than to force oneself to concentrate. As the intensity of thinking decreases, the mind settles into a more focused, concentrated state.
The simplicity of retreat life and the many hours of meditation provide ample time for practicing mindfulness of breathing. If one is able to sustain attention on the breathing for only 60-70% of the time, doing so throughout the day adds up to more attention on breathing than one can usually sustain in daily life. If one also attends to one’s breathing outside the formal periods of meditation, it helps us settle more and more into the simplicity of being in the present. Standing in line waiting for a meal to start, eating the meal, sitting down to have a cup of tea, using the bathroom, and taking a stroll around the retreat property are all opportunities to check in with one’s breathing.
The idea of checking in suggests that we are not just slowly increasing our concentration, but also learning about ourselves through the breathing. Breathing can reveal much about our inner state. Over the day, the pattern of our breathing may change, sometimes slower or faster, sometimes shallow or deep, sometimes coarse or subtle. Tension in the muscles used for breathing may vary in location and intensity depending on the thoughts and emotions present. It can be quite effective to gently continue breathing with whatever tension, emotions, or pattern of breathing might be present. It is helpful to maintain continuity of attention to breathing as equanimously and non-reactively as possible. Such continuity can give “breathing room” within which our tense muscles and emotions can come to homoeostasis. Giving attention to our breathing can protect us somewhat from our attention becoming preoccupied with interfering, judging, fixing, and reacting to what is happening.
Wandering off in thought is part of practicing mindfulness of breathing; there is no need to see it as a failure or a hindrance. Certainly, getting lost in thought for extended times is counterproductive in meditation. However, the rhythm of wandering off and returning gives us frequent opportunities to notice what it is that prompts the mind to wander off. To notice this, it is helpful not to quickly jerk the attention back to the breathing. Rather let wandering off be the occasion to take a moment or two to notice clearly what the mind is doing and the attitude behind our thinking. If the conditions of the mind that encourage wandering thoughts are not recognized, we are much more likely to wander off again. Taking a couple of moments to notice the nature of the wandering mind, we might also take the opportunity to see if we can relax any tension or pressure associated with thinking. Relaxing the “thinking muscle” tends to decrease the tendency to wander off into thought.
Furthermore, by not being in a hurry to return the attention to breathing, we might be more able to let go into the experience of breathing. Instead of pouncing back on the breathing or bearing down, it might be more effective to relax into the experience of breathing.
Once we return to attending to breathing, the skill of practice is to then sustain the attention. Here also, it is best not to try too hard. Certainly it is important to set one’s intention to sustain the mindfulness on as many breaths in a row as we can. If we don’t value the opportunity to do so, the mind is less likely to cooperate. One way to cultivate continuity is to focus the lens of attention to have as clear an experience of breathing as available. This asks us to do more than just follow the rhythm of breathing in and out. It includes recognizing clearly the particular sensations and physical movements that are in play as we breathe. It asks that we have a relaxed interest in discovering how each in-breath and out-breath are unique, with their own texture and pattern of sensations. We can become familiar with the difference between the experiences of inhaling and exhaling. During part of the exhalation, there may be a natural letting go that we can ever so slightly emphasize or relax into. By allowing this letting go to continue for a nanosecond longer than it would on its own, concentration may begin, over time, to strengthen.
In taking time to more clearly experience breathing we may also notice the slightest nanosecond pause at the end of an out-breath. Then it can be helpful to gently, calmly let the pause linger just long enough so it is clear that the in-breath begins on its own. There can be a nice sense of surrender in allowing the in-breath to begin with no effort or intention on our part.
Tuning the lens of attention to breathing in can include noticing the growing pressure and movements of expansion in the belly and/or chest as the lungs fill with air. Does this start slowly or quickly? Does the expansion end suddenly or does it slow down near the end? What is experienced in the transition between the end of breathing in and the start of breathing out?
When we become mindful of more aspects of the full experience of breathing, it can be helpful to notice at what points in the cycle of breathing the mind is most likely to wander off into thought. For some people this is during the out-breath, often near the end. For others, it is in a gap at the end of the out-breath. And for others it is during the in-breath. If we know there’s a particular part of the cycle where we are most likely to be pulled into thinking, we can then gently stay more alert at that point, vigilant to not wander away from the breathing.
Retreats are a great time to become friends with your breathing. If you do, your breathing will befriend you. You might come to appreciate what a wonderful companion breathing is, a companion to check in with throughout the day. Being in touch with one’s breathing is a great support for a wise life.