Mindfulness Meditation is the Meditation on the Universal Nature of All Beings―
The One Thing That Connects Us All.
By Sakya Longyen
Life Begets Death
Buddha said to a Sramana, “How long is the span of a person’s life?” “It is but a few days,” was the answer. Buddha said, “You have not understood.” Buddha asked another Sramana, who replied, “It is the time taken to eat a single meal.” To this Buddha replied in the same way and asked a third, “How long is the span of a person’s life?” “It is the time taken by a single breath,” was the reply. “Excellent,” said Buddha, “You understand the Way.” ―Section 38 of the Sutta of Forty-Two Sections
The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to understand the true nature of existence. It may be called Quietism. As you might guess, its purpose is for us to learn to stay very quiet, very still, and if we do that long enough, we become sinless. That’s because we are not doing anything. Mindfulness meditation strengthens attention and attention strengthens willpower.
Go to a quiet place where we will be alone and not disturbed.
Sit in a comfortable posture and set our upper body erect and relaxed. Place our hands on the lap, palms upward, with right hand on top of the left and the thumbs touching at the tips. This Mudra Amitabha Buddha is the Dhyana mudra of meditation which indicates the perfect balance of thought, rest of the senses, and tranquillity. Close our eyes or leave them half-open but focus on the point of contact between the tips of the thumbs.
A nicely straight back has all the vertebrae stacked on one another. This is to ensure that energy can flow up and down the back without any blockage. Leaning against anything stops the energy flow and causes sleepiness to arise.
Also, we must sit without moving the body for any reason. Please do not wriggle the toes or fingers or move the hands to rub or scratch or change the posture in any way until after the sitting is over. Any movement breaks the continuity of the practice and this causes us to start all over again.
To be truly mindful means to open up and allow whatever arises to present itself in the present moment. Moving while sitting means that we are not being mindful at all.
To sit as still as a Buddha image is the best! Actually, the only allowable movement during meditation is to straighten the back when it starts to curve or slump, as long as it is not done too often.
More advanced meditative postures or practices are discussed in the Mindfulness of Dhamma section.
For the serious beginners, it is recommended to sit not less than 45 minutes at a time. Start by meditating for 15 minutes every day for a week and then extend the time by five minutes each day for a week until we are meditating for 45 minutes. But when a sitting is good, please stay with that sitting for as long as it lasts.
A good sitting might last for one hour or one hour and ten minutes, or longer. Sitting for one or two or three hours is fine only when we are ready to sit comfortably for such long hours.
If we sit in the same way which causes pain to arise every time, then we are causing ourselves unnecessary physical discomfort.
Bring our attention to the present moment. Focus the mind on the breath, coming in and going out, in and out. To deepen our concentration, try counting:
Inhale and exhale. Say silently “one.”
Inhale and exhale. Say silently “two.”
Inhale and exhale. Say silently “three.”
Continue up to ten.
Inhale and exhale. Say silently “ten.”
Inhale and exhale. Say silently “nine.”
Inhale and exhale. Say silently “eight.”
Continue down to one.
When we complete this round of counting, we move on to the next stage of mindfulness of the breath.
Mindfulness of the Breath
We may watch our in-breath and out-breath at the start but we should not force our breath in or out. We should just be aware of our breath as it passes in and out naturally in its own way. We only have to be watchful, mindful, and attentive to our breath. Fix our mind and attention on the spot the breath first touches, the upper lip or the tip of the nose, as the case may be. To be conscious and mindful of, or attentive to, our breath is the first step of meditation on breathing.
Notice that when we inhale and exhale with mindfulness, we experience the feeling of each breath. The sensations change as the breath changes. So we observe the changing breath and the changing sensations. We find that sometimes the breath is shallow; other times it is deep. Sometimes it is easy to breathe; other times, not so easy. We watch these variations.
Along with this, we notice another pattern of subtle feelings, a little bit of anxiety and relief of anxiety, pressure and release of pressure. Mindfulness helps us notice that when the lungs are full of air, we feel a slight pressure or tension in our lungs. As we breathe out, this tension is slowly released. But when there is no more air in our lungs, we experience a degree of anxiety because there is no air in our lungs. So we breathe in again, and this anxiety fades away. As it does, we experience a degree of pleasure but also the return of pressure.
We soon discover that there is no escape from these feelings. But even this pattern has much to teach us. When we experience tension, we remind ourselves not to be disappointed. When we experience pleasure, we remember not to cling to it.
Mindfulness of the Breath-body
Next, we develop mindfulness over the extension of each in-breath and out-breath. When we breathe in long, we understand, “I breathe in long.” When we breathe out short, we understand, “I breathe out short.” Understanding here means that we do not concentrate on the breath to the exclusion of anything else.
Then, we pay attention to how we feel at the start, the middle, and the end of each in-breath and out-breath. This awareness of the entire breathing cycle is called mindfulness of the breath-body. While the mind is engaged with the breath-body, the mind and the breath are relaxed. When they are relaxed, the rest of our body is also relaxed. This is so because the breath is part of the body.
Paying attention to the breath-body is an aspect of being mindful of the body in the body. Mindfulness helps us see that the breath and the body are not separate. When the entire body, including the breath, is relaxed and the mind tranquil and still, we say that we have tranquillised our bodily formation (more of this in the Mindfulness of Body section).
Mindfulness of Expansion and Contraction
Another way to practise mindfulness of breathing is to notice the expansion and contraction of our body. When we breathe in, the belly expands, and when we breathe out, it contracts. But actually, the movement of the belly is the second stage of the body’s rising and falling. The first stage occurs at the tip of the nose. Inhaling is rising and exhaling is falling. With mindfulness, we notice microscopically our body’s expansion as we breathe in and contraction as we breathe out.
While noticing these events, we also feel expansion, contraction, and other subtle movements in the whole body. These same motions occur in every material object. The whole universe is actually expanding and contracting. To practise mindfulness of breathing, we need awareness only of the expansion and contraction of our own body.
Mindfulness of Internal and External Elements
Another way we become aware of the relationship between the breath and the body is by noting that the breath is made up of five elements―earth, water, fire, air, and space. All material objects, including the body, are composed of these elements.
As we practise mindfulness of breathing, we recognise that it is the breath’s earth element―its form or shape―that gives rise to pressure, release, and other sensations of touch in the nose, lungs, and belly.
Similarly, we notice that the breath is dry when its water element is low. When we are aware of moisture in the breath, its water element is high.
The temperature of the breath is due to its fire element. Heat fluctuates. When its fire element is high, we call the breath hot. When it goes down, we call the breath cold.
The function of the air element is motion and energy. We experience the movement of the breath because of its air element. The space element is anything that is space, spatial, and clung to in our body such as the holes in the ears, the nostrils, the mouth, that aperture whereby what is eaten, drunk, consumed, and tasted gets swallowed, and where it collects, and whereby it is excreted from below.
In addition, the parts of the body―including the breath―are described as internal or external. The elements inside the body are internal; those outside are external. If we think about this distinction, it may occur to us that the breath that we have inhaled is internal. When we exhale, this internal breath mixes with the external air. Then the breath is external. We might also say that the internal body is inhaling, and the external body is exhaling.
In the Maha Rahulovada Sutta, Buddha explains the meaning of the words “internal” and “external” as they apply to the five elements of the body. In terms of the air element, he says:
“What, Rahula, is the air element? The air element may be either internal or external. What is the internal air element? Whatever internally belonging to oneself is air, airy, and clung to2, that is up-going winds, down-going winds, wind in the belly, wind in the bowels, winds that course through the limbs, in-breath and out-breath, or whatever else internally belonging to oneself is air, airy, and clung to, this is called the internal air element.
“Now both the internal air element and the external air element are simply air element. And that should be seen with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, and this is not my self.’ When one sees it thus, as it actually is with proper wisdom, one becomes disenchanted with the air element and makes the mind dispassionate towards the air element.”
Explanations of the rest of the elements can be found in the Mahā-Rahulovada Sutta.
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness as conserved in the Mahā-Satipatthana Sutta are Mindfulness of the Body, Mindfulness of Feeling, Mindfulness of the Mind, and Mindfulness of Dhamma.
Mindfulness of the Body3 includes meditation on the in-breath and out-breath, the four postures of walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, clear understanding, contemplation on impurities, the four elements, and the nine stages of decomposition of corpses. We develop mindfulness of the body in order to gain awareness of the impurities of the body and to tranquillise the bodily formation. To tranquillise the bodily formation is to notice the tightness which arises in the head with every arising of a consciousness (i.e., mental object, creation, or formation), and let that tightness go, while on the in-breath and out-breath. Then we feel the mind open up, expand, relax and become tranquil.
Being ever mindful of the body―including the breath, we become aware of the body as it actually is, with proper wisdom, thus: becoming detached for the self and realising that the individual self is an illusion. As we go deeper in meditation, we also see that there is not much difference between this body and any other body, thus: ‘becoming aware and realising just as we are, so is the world.’
When we see the connection between ourselves, our environment, and all living things, we develop loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity.
Mindfulness of Feeling4 is the meditation on the aspect of suffering arising from our feelings. We examine the feelings that arise when the breath first touches the tip of the nose or upper lip and see that they are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and non-abiding ―feelings that we cling to physically, emotionally, and mentally, either worldly or spiritually.
We remind ourselves that our underlying preference for pleasant feelings often arises from desire, which can lead to greed for sensual pleasure. But when we crave pleasure, we always end up suffering, because, like all impermanent things, pleasure eventually changes or disappears.
We also remember that our underlying tendency to avoid unpleasant feelings often arises from resentment, which can lead to anger. We observe these tendencies, our greed and our anger, relax our mind, and then let them go, returning our attention to the breath.
Suffering manifests itself in our birth, ageing, illness, death, separation from loved ones and loss of things we hold dearly, association with the hated, unsatisfied wants, and the five aggregates of clinging to material form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness.
Mindfulness of the Mind5 is the meditation on the perception of impermanent, unsatisfactory, and non-abiding nature of the mind. When we meditate on the eight pairs of transient mental formations and see that they are impermanent and therefore unsatisfactory and that they are non-abiding, the conceit ‘I am’ will be abandoned.
By observing the shifting contents of the mind carefully and separating out anything that sustains suffering and illusion, we tranquillise the mental formations. The world begins in the consciousness―As we are, so it the world. When the mind is tranquil and still, arising, agreeable, and disagreeable contacts (agents) will not invade our mind and remain.
Mindfulness of Dhamma6 is the meditation on the impermanent and non-abiding nature of the self, i.e., ego, in all dhammas. All material objects are made up of their constituent elements and aggregates. We can label any projection of a concept we know all too well; we can name phenomena that are the objects of our perception but none of these have an ego, self, or other abiding substance in themselves. In other words, everything in nature is impermanent.
Mindfulness of dhamma is the awareness and mindfulness, on whatever occasion, of whatever we do, physically or verbally, during the daily routine of work in our private, public or professional life. Whether we walk, stand, sit, lie down, or sleep, whether we stretch or bend our limbs, whether we look around, whether we put on our clothes, whether we talk or keep silence, whether we eat or drink, and even whether we answer the calls of nature―in these and other activities, we should be fully aware and mindful of the act we perform at the moment all the time.
In other words, we should live in the present moment, in the present action, at all times. That does not mean that we should not think of the past or the future at all. On the contrary, we should think of them in relation to the present moment, the present action, when and where it is relevant.
By developing meditation on the dhamma, we unravel the ego’s version of reality and pierce through the ego’s claim that it knows how to live properly. By being mindful of our being, we let go of materialism in both its crude and subtle form, thus overcoming the distraction of thoughts and sensations.
When we develop and cultivate mindfulness of dhamma, we will detach ourselves from our ego attachments.
The Four Divine Abodes
In the Maha Rahulovada Sutta, Buddha teaches Rahula the four Divine Abodes of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity.
“Rahula, develop meditation on loving-kindness. For when you develop meditation on loving-kindness, any ill-will will be abandoned.
“Rahula, develop meditation on compassion. For when you develop meditation on compassion, any cruelty will be abandoned.
“Rahula, develop meditation on appreciative joy. For when you develop meditation on appreciative joy, any discontent will be abandoned.
“Rahula, develop meditation on equanimity. For when you develop meditation on equanimity, any aversion will be abandoned.”
Actually, a person who is always mindful will accept any kinds of pain, emotional upset, physical discomforts, or even death with equanimity, full awareness or strong attention and not identifying with it or taking that pain personally.
Sixteen Steps of Mindfulness of Breathing
In the Mahā-Rahulovada Sutta, Rahula asks Buddha how is mindfulness of breathing developed and cultivated so that it is of great fruit and great benefit. Buddha says:
Here Rahula, a bhikkhu, gone to the forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, sits down. Having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.
Breathing in long, he understands, ‘I breathe in long,’ or breathing out long, he understands, ‘I breathe out long.’
Breathing in short, he understands, ‘I breathe in short,’ or breathing out short, he understands, ‘I breathe out short.’
He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe in, experiencing the whole body.’ He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe out, experiencing the whole body.’
He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe in, tranquillising the bodily formation.’ He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe out, tranquillising the bodily formation.’
He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe in, experiencing rapture.’ He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe out, experiencing joy.’
He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe in, experiencing pleasure.’ He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe out, experiencing happiness.’
He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe in, experiencing the mental formation.’ He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe out, experiencing the mental formation.’
He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe in, tranquillising the mental formation.’ He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe out, tranquillising the mental formation.’
He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe in, experiencing the mind.’ He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe out, experiencing the mind.’
He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe in, gladdening the mind.’ He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe out, gladdening the mind.’
He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe in, concentrating the mind.’ He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe out, concentrating the mind.’
He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe in, liberating the mind.’ He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe out, liberating the mind.’
He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe in, contemplating impermanence.’ He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe out, contemplating impermanence.’
He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe in, contemplating fading away.’ He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe out, contemplating fading away.’
He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe in, contemplating cessation.’ He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe out, contemplating cessation.’
He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe in, contemplating relinquishment.’ He trains thus, ‘I shall breathe out, contemplating relinquishment.’
Rahula, that is how mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, so that it is of great fruit and great benefit. When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated in this way, even the final in-breath and out-breath are known as they cease, not unknown.
These sixteen steps of mindfulness meditation are actually the four foundations of mindfulness broken down into practical steps. Divided into four sets of four, the first set trains the body; the second set, feeling; the third set, the mind; and the fourth set, dhamma. Proceed sequentially from step one to step sixteen.
If restlessness, agitation, or doubt occurs, work to open our mind and see that it clearly is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not taking it personally. Relax our mind around the tension caused by such restlessness, agitation, or doubt, and return our attention to the breath and its natural pace.
If our mind wanders from its focus on the breath, relax our mind of the tension in the head caused by such distraction, and then gently but firmly return our attention to the breath. And then do it again the next time, and the next time, and the time after that.
If we feel sleepy or dull, try focusing on the touch sensations of the in-breath and out-breath at the tip of the nose or upper lip, lungs, and belly.
If we begin to feel pain, we first recognise that the mind has gone to that sensation. We then let go of any thoughts about that sensation. Then, we open the mind and let go of the tight mental grip that is wrapped around that sensation, or by letting the sensation be there by itself without any mental resistance or aversion to it. This is done by telling ourselves, “Never mind, it is all right for this pain to be there.” Next, we relax the tightness which is in the head, feel the mind expand and become calm, and then turn our attention back to the breath or object of meditation.
Distractions or hindrances that prevent us from staying mindful are the things that we cling to physically, emotionally, mentally or otherwise. Whenever a hindrance arises, simply let it be without getting caught up thinking about it. Any force to ignore, block, suppress, or identify with it is counterproductive. Agitation or extra effort makes our breathing speed up. When this happens, we pay attention to the fast breathing and notice the agitation. Then we relax the mind, and the agitation disappears by itself. It doesn’t matter how many times we allow a hindrance to arise. Every time we relax our mind and let go of it, we purify our mind and expand our awareness.
Buddha taught us three kinds of actions to stay mindful while meditating or during our daily activities. They are, “Love Where We Are At, Love What We Are Doing in the Present Moment, and Love Who We Are With.” These simple explanations allow us to be completely accepting of the present moment.
To love where we are at is to accept the fact that when we are sitting in meditation or engaging in any other activities, things are not always like we want them to be.
To love what we are doing is to open up the mind and allow whatever arises in the present moment to present itself without our clinging to it. A good acronym for this is “DROPS,” which means “Don’t Resist Or Push, Soften.” Whatever arises, we do not resist or push. Just soften into it, open the mind and accept it.
To love who we are with is to love ourselves enough so that we see and let go of all kinds of attachments which cause pain to arise in our body and mind. The recognition that we cause our own suffering is a major realisation. When we truly love ourselves, we will see the pain and sorrow and lovingly let it go. This is done by letting go of thinking about it. Thus, we let go of the attachment and the ego identification with it.
Revealing Our Pure Consciousness
Our present self or ego, in its unawakened state, is not our enemy or a cripple or a failure. It is Buddha (or pure consciousness) waiting to realise itself. Mindfulness helps us pluck out the seed of illusion, not feed the mind with new ideals that would succumb to corruption in the inexorable working of time. Even if we pursue peace and love to be a better person, we are judging against ourselves, and self-judgement is the root of all illusions.
Developing mindfulness or taking the Eightfold Path represents a way to find out who we truly are by inviting our awareness to show what it really is. We do not strive for right action, right speech, or right thought because they are virtues belonging to an enlightened person. They are spontaneously a part of every person once we drop our disguises. The mystery of Buddha’s cure is this: What we seek, we already are.
When the last of our ego attachments or negative mental habits disappear, we see our true nature. Truth is not found in words nor is it taught or learned but it is revealed through insight and self-discovery. To reach truth, we must become it. Our consciousness must change until what is false has been left behind. Then truth will exist by itself, strong and self-sufficient. When we see our true nature completely free of self-judgement, there is only Buddha―the awakened light of consciousness.
Meditation will not be a practice set apart in our day; it will become the nature of our attention all the time―the way we can be present for all the moments in our life. For two thousand years, nature has held the cure for solitude in its heart. When we realise ourselves as Buddha, we are still alone, but our solitude fills every corner of creation as far as the eye can see.
Sharing the Merit Accrued from Our Meditation
Let us join palms and share the merit accrued from this meditation with all beings.
May suffering ones be suffering free
And the fear struck fearless be
May the grieving shed all grief
And all beings find relief.
May all beings share in this merit
That we have thus accrued
For the acquisition of happiness.
May beings inhabiting space and Earth
Divas and Nagas of mighty power
Share in this merit of ours.
Sādhu, Sādhu, Sādhu7.u