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Mindfulness (2): The Underrated Wonder of Breathing

The heart of the Buddha’s Pali discourses is the Satipatthana or “Mindfulness Sutta” (Majjhima Nikaya 10), which is presented as the “one” way to freedom from suffering. Those encountering it for the first time are often surprised to find that such an influential text — central to Theravada, Mahayana, and Zen — makes no arguments and offers no vision of the ultimate nature of reality, but instead consists of twenty-one exercises for focused contemplation. These exercises have been subjected to hundreds of thousands of pages of often conflicting commentary, and some of them have become the central practice for entire Buddhist communities. In this essay and the ones to come, I intend to read the Satipatthana Sutta in a spirit of humble, naïve inquiry, hoping to show that even for a newcomer to these practices the Buddha’s words do indeed make sense in light of ordinary human experience — which they in turn illuminate. I make no claims to having a comprehensive overview of the path, and am content here to dwell on the exercises that seem particularly rich and powerful to me.

The Daoist sage Zhuangzi gives us this dismally concise summation of a normal human life:

We sleep and our spirits converge; we awake and our bodies open outward. We give, we receive, we act, we construct: all day long we apply our minds to struggles against one thing or another – struggles unadorned or struggles concealed, but in either case tightly packed one after another without gap. The small fears leave us nervous and depleted; the large fears leave us stunned and blank. Shooting forth like an arrow from a bowstring: such is our presumption when we arbitrate right and wrong. Holding fast as if to sworn oaths: such is our defense of our victories. Worn away as if by autumn and winter: such is our daily dwindling, drowning us in our own activities, unable to turn back. Held fast as if bound by cords, we continue along the same ruts. The mind is left on the verge of death, and nothing can restore its vitality.

(Zhuangzi, Essential Writings, tr. Ziporyn, 2009, pp.9-10)

Our lives are constructed on a foundation of internal and external insecurities. Because this foundation is always shaking, made up as it is of changing realities and mental projections, the structure we put on it is also shifting, unstable, subject to a constant process of frenzied construction and repair. How can we save ourselves from drowning in this frenzy?

For a reader accustomed to philosophical traditions that begin from the premise that the body is a dark, unknowable, painful thing that hinders light and knowledge and must be transcended if we are to attain the higher realms of Truth and Goodness, the Buddha’s opening recommendation has to be startling: a practitioner has to begin by “contemplating the body in the body.”

“And how, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating the body in the body?
“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu, gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty place, sits down, bends in his legs crosswise on his lap, keeps his body erect, and arouses mindfulness in the object of meditation, namely, the breath which is in front of him.”

(tr.Soma Thera, 1998)

The very first step is to remove ourselves from the realm of our frantic activity, finding some place where we will not be interrupted, and sit. The foot of a tree is a wonderful place for this because from a tree we can learn, by osmosis, to be still. It is not that a tree is inactive; there is infinite life in its bark and foliage, infinite movement in the air and light playing about the leaves and in the fluids coursing through the veins, and unimaginable power in every cell and in the coordination of the cells to keep such a huge thing upright for so long in all the buffetings of weather. Yet the tree lives, bursting to fullness with all this energy, and has no need to bustle around achieving tasks. Sitting by this tree, we can draw strength and focus from it as we arouse mindfulness or sati. We bring our attention to bear on our first object of meditation: breath.

“Mindful, he breathes in, and mindful, he breathes out. He, thinking, ‘I breathe in long,’ he understands when he is breathing in long; or thinking, ‘I breathe out long,’ he understands when he is breathing out long; or thinking, ‘I breathe in short,’ he understands when he is breathing in short; or thinking, ‘I breathe out short,’ he understands when he is breathing out short.”

This seems at first ridiculously simple and tedious, and a person reading it for the first time might nod politely and pass on, because this is too easy and obvious; or might try it for a few minutes and then move to something more interesting. If we do react in this way, we will have missed the point completely. What the Buddha is offering here is the antidote to our toxic frenzy. We are submerged, asphyxiated, in the high dramas and cyclical intensities of the fabrication that we take to be our lives. Because we have lost ourselves in a fog where we can no longer differentiate fantasy from reality, the only way to obtain clarity is to find something we are certain about. One such thing is the fact that we will die, and the Buddha will invite us to chew on this soon; but another is the undeniable fact that as I am writing and as you are reading, we are both breathing. Not only is breathing happening, but we are capable of experiencing it, of bringing our attention to bear on it.

This is so obvious that we should be shocked that we need a teacher to point it out to us, but it is testimony to the genius of the Buddha that the first exercise on the path involves breathing: something we are all doing anyway, whether we want to or not, and therefore a universal phenomenon that we have access to and can contemplate — anyone, anywhere, anytime. Again, this is blindingly obvious — but a wise person is not afraid of the obvious, especially if it is telling us what we need to listen to but so far have failed to hear. The practice can start now; in the case of breathing, we need nothing extra and have no excuse to procrastinate.

For a student coming to this from another religion, the Buddha’s matter-of-fact way of talking about breathing is also striking: he is only discussing breathing, and not turning the breath into something high-flown and spiritual, such as prana. The Buddha makes no cosmic claims in these exercises, and if we undertake this exercise thinking that in breathing we are uniting with the transcendent breath of the world-spirit, we will have again missed the point. He is asking us to locate ourselves in the earthy and mundane, not to glorify ourselves. This is why he specifies contemplating the body in the body: not the divine principle in the body, or the body in the divine principle, or the body mixed up with feelings and thoughts, or the body as an idea (“mechanical”/”organic”) — simply the body, in itself. Moreover, what the bhikkhu does is to observe the breath as it is; he doesn’t seek to slow it down or to influence it in any way, with the aim of creating a different emotional state. In the paragraph just quoted, the qualifiers are “long” and “short,” but there could be other qualifiers –for instance, steady or unsteady, forceful or weak, full or thin, different at the end than at the beginning, and so on. The more we practice this, the more we will notice — and our breathing becomes high definition breathing, rather than the haphazard low resolution affair it used to be. The key is that we are sitting and engaging; it is not about doing anything, but about seeing accurately what is there in front of us, beyond the mediating ideas we may have of it. Some have described mindfulness as “bare attention,” where “bare” means stripped of extraneous accessories and adornments, naked, pure.

When we consciously experience breathing in this naked way, one of the first things to dissolve is the conception of breathing as respiration, as mere inhalation and exhalation of air by nose, mouth, and lungs. The air is experienced just beyond the nose, and we become aware of the coolness around the nostrils, the motion of the nostrils, our hairs, the distinctive feel of the air as it moves to the back of the nose, and so on — until, the intercostal muscles and ribcage expanding, we can feel the drawing down of the diaphragm as the entire torso breathes. With the exhale, it is easier to feel the whole body participating, as it relaxes in the toes, fingers, and face. It is not possible to describe fully what we discover when we engage our breathing with single-minded attention, and as we become more skilled and more sustained in our attending, we can see that every single breath is unique:

“Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe in,’ thinking thus, he trains himself. ‘Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe out,’ thinking thus, he trains himself. ‘Calming the activity of the body, I shall breathe in,’ thinking thus, he trains himself. ‘Calming the activity of the body, I shall breathe out,’ thinking thus, he trains himself.
“Just as a clever turner or a turner’s apprentice, turning long, understands: ‘I turn long;’ or turning short, understands: ‘I turn short’; just so, indeed, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu, when he breathes in long, understands: ‘I breathe in long’; or, when he breathes out long, understands: ‘I breathe out long’; or, when he breathes in short, he understands: ‘I breathe in short’; or when he breathes out short, he understands: ‘I breathe out short.’ He trains himself with the thought: ‘Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe in.’ He trains himself with the thought: ‘Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe out.’ He trains himself with the thought: ‘Calming the activity of the body I shall breathe in.’ He trains himself with the thought: ‘Calming the activity of the body I shall breathe out.’

Thus breathing becomes an art, something to practice and become good at. The image of the skilled turner is evocative: imagine a turner on an ancient lathe, holding it steady with both feet while his hands turn the wood, the entire body alert and concentrated at an insubstantial edge — there, where the wood meets the blade. The true craftsman respects and follows the nature of the wood, bringing out its internal potential without forcing anything; and the action of turning is fluid, continuous, unhesitating. A stranger to wood and to woodworking would be quite blind to the fine distinctions in grain and shape that the turner can perceive with his whole body; skilled turning is not an act of mere manual production, but a creative and cognitive coming together of body and spirit. This is what breathing can become when we engage with it. We discover too that all sense of agency has been lost. The true artist is the first to tell you that he didn’t do anything; whatever it was happened through him, and he himself doesn’t understand what happened but could see it happening. Breathing is obviously an autonomic function: as long as we are alive it happens, we were not there when it started and will not be there when it ends. In the meantime we can ride the breath like the swimmer in Zhuangzi who is at home in the fiercest rivers because he is not afraid of following the undertows wherever they take him. As with any skill, the better you get at it, the more enjoyable and satisfying it becomes — and the remarkable gift given in this one page on breathing is that an action so ordinary, so barely noticeable, yet going on in us all the time, can become a source of pleasure and joy.

The first exercise of the Satipatthana concludes with a passage that gets repeated throughout the sutta with regard to other exercises as well.

“Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in the body. Or indeed his mindfulness is established with the thought: ‘The body exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world. Thus, also, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the body in the body.”

This is an invitation to reflect and examine, to hold what we have experienced and rotate it in our mind’s eye slowly, carefully, so that we understand it three-dimensionally and from various angles: the interior experience, its manifestation externally and objectively, the relation of those two, how a breath begins and continues and ends, or how there isn’t really a beginning and end because “breathing” is not a thing but a confluence of a myriad things in reciprocal activity. I am a being who breathes at this moment, in this place, having among my conditions a body that can take in air and a universe that has the air I can take in; and both this body and this universe abide in an infinity of conditions, all in action so that this, just this, can happen. Thus sati is truly remembrance, a recollection of what we actually are, and it is only through this deliberate exercise of focused attention that we will begin to remember our own lives.

However, the paragraph ends with a sober caution: it is easy to get carried away from this experience and to lose ourselves in theories and speculations that arise from the thoughts we will inevitably generate from the exercise. Instead, we reflect to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and no matter how excited we become at our own discoveries, there is no need to impress, no need to spread the word, no neediness at all: he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.

A note on the drawing above (from “The Woodturner’s Workshop,”

The image…is taken from a book published in 1881 (Hand or Simple Turning – Principles and Practice by John Holtzapffel) portrays an Indian turner. The author states that “He commences by digging two holes in the ground at a distance suitable for the length of the work, and in these fixes two short wooden posts, securing them as firmly as he can by ramming earth and driving in wedges and stones around them. The centres, scarcely more then round nails or spikes, are driven through the posts at about eight inches from the ground, and a wooden rod for the support of the tools, is either nailed to the posts or tied to them by a piece of coir or coconut rope. The bar if long is additionally supported … by one or two vertical sticks driven into the ground. During most of his mechanical operations the Indian workman is seated on the ground … The boy, who gives motion to the work, sits or kneels on the other side of it holding the ends of cord wrapped around it in his hands, pulling them alternately …”. Notice that in this instance the turner is using his toes to steady the tool on the rest.

For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see: