Bringing the Anapanasati Sutta together
Over the past few weeks, we've been looking at Majjhima Nikaya 118, the Anapanasati Sutta - the discourse on mindfulness of breathing in and out.
The Anapanasati Sutta presents a practice composed of sixteen steps, grouped into four 'tetrads' - four groups of four steps each - and in past weeks we've taken each tetrad in turn:
This week it's my last article (and class) of the year, so it seems fitting to bring it all together into a single unified practice. Before we get into that, though, I think it's also worth saying a few words about how we might choose to approach such a detailed, complex practice, since at first sight it can appear a bit daunting, especially compared to much simpler practices like Silent Illumination.
A high-level outline of the Anapanasati practices
Anapanasati provides us with a flexible, self-contained approach to practice that covers two of the major bases of early Buddhist practice - developing samadhi (calming, focusing and unifying the mind) and cultivating wisdom (liberating insight into the nature of reality). If we're interested in heart-opening practices or the jhanas, there are places where those can optionally be accommodated into the Anapanasati scheme as well.
The practice begins with the preliminaries - finding a place to meditate where you won't be disturbed, setting up a reasonably comfortable and sustainable posture that allows you to feel relaxed but alert at the same time, neither tense nor falling asleep. Then, as the foundation for the practice, we begin by paying attention to the sensations of the breathing.
Like a number of other schemes of practice (such as the way I teach Silent Illumination in class), Anapanasati assumes that we will be coming to our practice with a comparatively 'busy' mind which wanders frequently. When the mind is busy, it's helpful to start with a meditation practice that's also 'busy' - if we try to start with a practice that's too quiet and subtle, it's very likely to come across as 'boring', and the mind will refuse point-blank to focus on it. If, instead, we start with something a bit more engaging, our minds are more likely to settle into the practice. Then we can begin to move the meditation practice in a subtler direction, and our minds will become quieter and subtler along with it.
So Anapanasati starts with paying attention to the breathing in a fairly simple, coarse manner. For some of us, that's still too subtle, so it can help to count the breathing, incorporate a mantra in time with the breath, or add a visualisation of an ocean wave going in and out as you breathe. A few minutes with an aid can help a particularly rambunctious mind to settle down enough that you can drop the aid and simply rest with the breathing.
It's important to say that you don't need to have 'perfect' focus before moving on! You're looking for a helpful reduction in mind-wandering. If 99% of your 'meditation time' is spent thinking about something unrelated, then not much is going to happen, but if you can get it to the point where you're with the practice more often than not, you're in a decent place. I encourage you to experiment for yourself to figure out what's useful and what isn't - just bear in mind that trying to attain 'perfection' is setting yourself up to fail. The mind wanders, and it doesn't help to demonise that.
When we've established a basic, good-enough level of focus, we move into the first tetrad, which concentrates on refining our awareness of the body sensations, culminating in allowing the body to become so still and quiet that subtler sensations start to become apparent. We then move through the second tetrad, to progressively subtler aspects of experience - subtle body sensations and then purely mental qualities. Eventually, our mental activity settles down in the same way that the bodily activity settled in the previous step. When both bodily and mental activity have settled to some degree and become less distracting, we're then able to turn the attention more easily to the mind, or awareness, itself. Here, in the third tetrad, the settling process can go even deeper, resulting in a mind which is greatly less prone to distraction than it was at the start. (This is the point where we can introduce jhana or Brahmavihara practice, if we can do so in a way that deepens our focus rather than disturbing it - see the discussion in the article on the third tetrad for more details.) Finally, we have a mind which is razor-sharp and well prepared for insight practice, which is the subject matter of the fourth tetrad. The final steps lead us through a careful examination of impermanence, ultimately culminating in the deep letting go which is the ultimate goal of all spiritual practice.
Three ways of working with Anapanasati
We've been exploring the Anapanasati practice in my Wednesday night class over the last few weeks, taking one tetrad each week. We had about 30 minutes for practice time each week, so we would start with 6 minutes of 'plain' mindfulness of breathing, then spend 6 minutes on each step of whichever tetrad we were looking at that week, with me watching the clock and calling the changes.
As a way of dipping a toe into each of the sixteen steps and getting a very basic sense of how the practice works, this is fine, but moving through the steps 'on the clock' might not be the best way to approach it. (If you're going to do this, at least set up a timer to ring a bell each time you're moving on to the next step, so that you aren't practising with one eye on the time all the way through - that's generally very unhelpful.)
Here are three alternative ways to approach the practices in this discourse. Note that the first two of these require you to have a fair chunk of practice time available, so might be better suited to retreat-style practice (or a weekend when you haven't got much on), but experiment for yourself to see what works. At the end of the day, it's your practice not mine, and if you find something of value in here then you don't need my approval!
Perhaps the most natural way (at least to me) to approach this discourse is to start at the beginning and move through each step sequentially when the mind feels ready to do so. So you start by paying attention to the breath, then when the mind is starting to feel a bit more settled and focused, introduce an awareness of the lengths of the breath (steps 1 and 2) to refine the subtlety of your awareness. Often, tweaking the technique will lead to increased distraction at first, as the mind tries to take on board something new, but stay with it - after a while, things will settle down again, and now you'll be more focused than you were previously. When it feels like you've reached a good level of stability, move on to step 3, broadening out the scope of awareness to include the whole body - and so on. Stay with each step until you have a sense that it's 'good enough' to move on.
What's 'good enough'? That's something you'll have to figure out for yourself. In general, the more settled and stable the mind, the easier the next step will be and the deeper the practice will go, but there's also a point of diminishing returns where you start to run out of energy and eventually the practice stops working entirely. The more you do it, the more your mind will be able to 'find its way back' to each of the steps, so you'll tend to find you can progress more quickly - but sometimes you might have the opposite experience, and end up spending all of your practice time at the earlier stages. Sometimes you might even feel the need to go back a step or two, if you realise you've moved too fast and the stability isn't there. Other times you might actually skip a step that's giving you trouble if you know you can get something out of a subsequent step. The point here is not to find a single, prescriptive pace at which to move through the sixteen steps, but instead to develop an intuitive relationship with your own mind through the vehicle of the sixteen steps.
An approach I never would have considered myself if I hadn't read it in Bhikkhu Analayo's book is to run 'quickly' through all sixteen steps as a kind of diagnostic, noticing if any steps in particular jump out at you, then returning to those steps for the bulk of your practice time.
This approach reminds me of one of the ways of working with the Five Daily Reflections, where you say each of the five out loud in turn, then choose whichever one seems to have the most importance for you right now. Sometimes, there's a particular point that really demands our attention, and it can be more fruitful to spend the bulk of our practice time there rather than going through the motions of everything else just for the sake of completionism. So, in the Anapanasati case, doing a quick run through all sixteen steps may 'highlight' a particular area worthy of deeper contemplation.
Of course, sixteen steps is a lot, and even running through them 'quickly' can take up a lot of time! (I have the sense that Bhikkhu Analayo would look at my typical daily practice as more of a warm-up before starting the real work...) Still, it's an interesting idea - give it a try sometime and see what happens.
In effect, this approach is what we've been doing over the last four weeks, taking one tetrad at a time and focusing just on that. (There's evidence that this happened in the Buddha's time as well - several discourses include only the first tetrad of Anapanasati, for example.)
Going further, you don't even have to limit yourself to picking one tetrad. You could instead treat the Anapanasati Sutta as a kind of anthology of practices (which is how we work with the Satipatthana Sutta), and simply pick and choose whatever seems interesting.
It's a good idea to include some amount of insight practice, even if you're much more drawn to the samadhi side. Settling and focusing the mind can feel really good, but if that's all you do, it can lead to some problems. People sometimes space out or withdraw, using the practice to avoid dealing with uncomfortable or unpleasant aspects of their lives. I can relate to this - yesterday evening, as I was on my way home from work, a group of youths threatened me and threw something at my house, and right now I'm feeling a strong pull to withdraw from the world and shut myself up in a safe place where I don't have to deal with anyone. That isn't a good long-term strategy, though! Sooner or later I have to get back out there so that my life can function as usual. Getting back on topic, the major drawback with samadhi practice is exactly this - it can lead to a kind of withdrawal into a comfortable, isolated space, a 'happy place' that we can retreat to more and more, even if the rest of our life is disintegrating around us. Insight practice has a way of challenging that kind of isolationism, confronting us with what's really going on, warts and all.
Ultimately, the two - samadhi and insight - work best hand-in-hand. Samadhi gives us joy, peace and equanimity, providing us with a stable base from which to explore our insight practice. Insight opens us up to the world around us, and ultimately leads to deeper and more long-term liberation than simply cultivating the temporary 'happy place' of samadhi, but it can also sometimes be unsettling, particularly when we realise the extent to which we've been unconsciously concealing the undesirable aspects of reality from ourselves. Also, those insights will tend to touch us more deeply - resulting in greater wisdom - if our minds are more focused and more opened up as a result of a samadhi practice.
So by all means approach the Anapanasati practice with a creative, non-linear approach - experiment with different combinations, play to your heart's content - but I would very much recommend trying to ensure that you incorporate elements of both samadhi and insight into your practice. It'll be stronger in the long run.
Anapanasati practice instructions summary
Without further ado, let's review the complete practice of Anapanasati. Sections in italics are taken from the discourse; everything else is my commentary.
Here, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, one sits down; having folded one's legs crosswise, set one's body erect, and established mindfulness in front of oneself, ever mindful one breathes in, mindful one breathes out.
Find a space where you won't be disturbed for the duration of your practice.
Set up a comfortable, sustainable posture, relaxed and alert.
Bring your attention to your breathing. Feel the sensations of in-breath and out-breath. Find a particular place in the body where you can follow the sensations, rather than moving around too much. Continue to focus on this place in the body during the gaps between each breath.
Breathing in long, one understands: 'I breathe in long'; or breathing out long, one understands: 'I breathe out long.' Breathing in short, one understands: 'I breathe in short'; or breathing out short, one understands: 'I breathe out short.'
Continuing to follow the breath, begin to notice the comparative lengths of each breath. Is this in-breath shorter or longer than the previous out-breath? What about the previous in-breath? Are your breaths all roughly the same length, or is it more variable?
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.'
Maintain your awareness of the breath, but now allow your awareness to expand to encompass the whole body, so that your breathing is the focal point but your peripheral awareness includes the sensations from the rest of the body as well. Find a balance where you can maintain both this broader, more open awareness of the body as a whole and the sense of the breathing as being 'highlighted' within that wider field of sensation.
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in calming bodily activity'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out calming bodily activity.'
Maintain your awareness of breath and body. Notice that, as you continue to rest in this awareness, your breath and body begin to relax and calm down, without you having to do anything deliberate to make that happen. Simply hold the intention to allow that process of calming to continue.
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing joy/rapture [piti]'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing joy/rapture [piti].'
Maintain your awareness of breath and body, but pay particular attention to the pleasant physical sensations in your field of experience. As the body calms and relaxes, these might take the form of subtle/energetic body sensations rather than coarse/physical body sensations. Allow yourself to enjoy these pleasant sensations whilst maintaining your awareness of the breathing. By the point, the awareness of breathing may have receded to the 'background' while your awareness of pleasant sensations is in the foreground, but the breathing should never be lost altogether.
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing happiness/pleasure [sukha]; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing happiness/pleasure [sukha].'
Maintaining a background awareness of the breathing, now pay particular attention to pleasant emotional sensations. For example, you might notice that it feels pretty good to have a calm body and a focused mind - recognise that quality of contentment, happiness or even joy, and allow yourself to appreciate or enjoy it.
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing mental activity [citta sankhara]'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing mental activity [citta sankhara].'
Maintaining a background awareness of the breathing, widen the scope of your awareness beyond positive emotions to include all mental activity - thoughts, mental images, emotions. Maintain a gentle, broad awareness of your mental activity as a whole, noticing it without getting involved.
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in tranquillising mental activity [citta sankhara]'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out tranquillising mental activity [citta sankhara].'
Continue to maintain your awareness of both the breathing and your mental activity. Notice that, as you continue to rest in this uninvolved awareness of your mental activity, that activity begins to slow down and settle, without you having to do anything deliberate to make that happen. Simply hold the intention to allow that process of calming to continue.
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing the mind'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing the mind.'
Maintain your awareness of your breathing, and notice that you are aware of your breathing - become aware of your awareness itself. If this is difficult, you might alternatively experience 'awareness of awareness' as a sense of finding a 'still point' at the centre of your awareness; or it might help to become aware of the totality of your experience 'as one thing', then focus on the 'one thing' rather than the 'contents' of awareness. (More on this tricky point in the relevant article.)
However you find it, continue to maintain an awareness of your breathing in the background, whilst focusing on awareness of awareness in the foreground.
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in gladdening the mind'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out gladdening the mind.'
Continue to maintain awareness of the breath and awareness of awareness. Notice that there's a kind of inherently pleasant quality to resting in awareness of awareness - a subtle contentment which is not dependent on any particular content of awareness, but intrinsic to the act of simply being aware. Allow that subtle contentment to permeate your practice.
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in concentrating the mind'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out concentrating the mind.'
Continue to maintain awareness of the breath and the awareness of awareness. Notice that, as you continue to rest in this subtly pleasant experience, your mind becomes even more settled and less prone to distraction, without you having to do anything deliberate to make that happen. Simply hold the intention to allow that process of settling to continue.
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in liberating the mind'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out liberating the mind.'
Continue to maintain awareness of the breath and the awareness of awareness, allowing the mind to become even more fully free from distraction, liberated from the usual mental hindrances that can pull us out of our meditation practice.
If you have a jhana practice, you can include it here to deepen the mind's stability and gladness still further.
Likewise, if you have a Brahmavihara practice and you can connect with it without introducing a lot of mental activity (i.e. without using phrases or visualisations), you can include it here to deepen the mind's stability and gladness still further.
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in contemplating impermanence'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out contemplating impermanence.'
Bring your attention fully back to the breathing. Notice that each breath is not just 'one long sensation' - each breath has a beginning, middle and end, which are different from each other. As you look more closely, notice that the 'beginning', 'middle' and 'end' are also composed of smaller 'parts', a collection of sub-sensations which likewise come and go. Continue to explore the sensations of the breathing, noticing the impermanence that you find at every level of the breathing.
If the mind wanders, notice that this too is impermanent - both the distraction itself (whether it's a thought, a sound or something else) and the attention that we give to that distraction have a beginning, middle and end. Indeed, whatever arises within our experience - sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings, sensations - has the same nature of impermanence, the same qualities of arising, duration, cessation.
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in contemplating dispassion/fading away'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out contemplating dispassion/fading away.'
Maintaining your awareness of the breathing, focus particularly on the 'second half' of each breath. Notice that every sensation has the nature to fade away - it's impossible to hold on to anything, even if we wanted to.
As we connect with this sense of fading away, we may start to perceive clearly the futility of the clinging which gives rise to our experience of suffering, and thus experience 'dispassion' (a fading or reduction of suffering).
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in contemplating cessation'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out contemplating cessation.'
Maintaining your awareness of the breathing, focus particularly on the moment when each sensation ceases. (If it helps, you can introduce the mental label 'gone' each time you notice a sensation vanish.) The mind is typically drawn to arising rather than cessation - you might also notice how each arising is inevitably bound up with a cessation, as your attention shifts from the previous (now gone) sensation to the new one.
We may encounter resistance at first when turning our attention toward cessation, but in time the mind begins to let go even more deeply, perceiving a world of vanishing in every direction.
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in contemplating letting go'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out contemplating letting go.'
At this stage, no instructions are necessary or useful. Ultimately, the purpose of the method is to take us to a place where the method can be put down, and we allow ourselves simply to let go into the flow of experience, moment by moment.
It's been a pleasure and a privilege to explore this discourse with you over the last few weeks. Of course, five weeks barely scratches the surface of a profound practice like this one - Anapanasati could easily provide us with a framework for life if we're so inclined. I've certainly come away from the experience with a profound respect for this frankly ingenious system of practice!
If you'd like to study Anapanasati in more detail, I'd recommend Bhikkhu Analayo's book on the topic. Another approach is described by Ajahn Buddhadasa in his own book on the subject. Plenty of teachers out there are specialists in Anapanasati (which I'm definitely not), so if this is a practice you'd like to take further, it's well worth seeking them out.
I wish you well on your Anapanasati journey!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!