Anapanasati Sutta, part 1
For the next few weeks we're going to be taking a look at the Anapanasati Sutta, number 118 in the Middle-Length Discourses. The name literally means something like 'The discourse on mindfulness of in-breath and out-breath', but despite the modest title it's a hugely important text for followers of the teachings of the historical Buddha - along with the Satipatthana Sutta (which we've discussed at length previously), it's one of a relatively small number of discourses in the Pali canon to give really detailed meditation instructions, and it presents a really comprehensive roadmap of early Buddhist practice.
The practice is divided into four sections (commonly called 'tetrads', because each section has four elements, so this practice has sixteen steps altogether), and so over the next four weeks we'll look at each tetrad in turn, before concluding this series (and the year!) with a broader view of the path of practice laid out in this discourse.
This week we're starting with the first tetrad, which is focused on the body, but before we get into that it's worth saying a few words about a line in the excerpt from the discourse that I quoted above: 'When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness.'
Satipatthana and Anapanasati - different approaches to the same terrain
We've previously discussed another foundational discourse from the Pali canon, the Satipatthana Sutta. You can find the whole series of six articles on that discourse here, but for today's purposes I'll provide a brief recap.
'Satipatthana' is made up of two parts, 'sati' and 'upatthana'. 'Sati' means something like 'remembering', but in a Buddhist context is usually translated as 'mindfulness', and 'upatthana' means something like 'attending' (in the sense of 'waiting on' or 'looking after'), so the compound has a sense of paying careful attention to something, usually an aspect of our present-moment experience. Some older translators interpreted 'satipatthana' instead as composed of 'sati' and 'patthana', the latter meaning something like 'foundation' or 'establishment', and since there are four 'satipatthanas' described in the discourse, you'll often hear 'satipatthana' translated as 'four foundations of mindfulness', as in the excerpt from the sutta above.
Either way, the Satipatthana Sutta lays out four aspects of our experience to which we are invited to pay careful attention. Those four are:
Both the Satipatthana Sutta and the Anapanasati Sutta address these four categories of experience, but they do so in different ways. The Satipatthana Sutta is like being given a map of an unfamiliar city and then being left alone to explore however you like - the discourse contains a large anthology of different practices with no particular over-arching structure except for a general trend to start with the simpler, coarser aspects of experience and progress toward the subtler. In contrast, the Anapanasati Sutta is like taking a guided tour with an experienced guide. You won't see everything and you won't have as much freedom to explore every curiosity and dark alley, but you'll get your Instagram photos of all the major sights, and you'll do so much quicker than if you had to figure it all out for yourself.
Unfortunately but inevitably, these two different approaches have led to something of a division in those surviving Buddhist lineages which place great emphasis on the Pali canon. Some teachers and traditions strongly emphasise the Satipatthana Sutta and dismiss the Anapanasati Sutta, while others take the opposite approach. Someone once walked out of a retreat I was teaching because I was offering practices from the Satipatthana and they had previously been taught the Anapanasati. Sigh. The fact is that both discourses are packed full of great practices, and both approaches have tremendous potential to enrich and transform you if you're willing to engage with them - it isn't about which one is 'right', or even which one is 'best' - or at least it shouldn't be! Personally, I've done more practice with the Satipatthana approach, and I really appreciate it deeply, but I've also explored the Anapanasati approach enough to have tremendous respect for it, so I'm happy to present both discourses here.
Enough background - let's get into the teachings!
The sales pitch
Like most Pali canon discourses, the Anapanasati Sutta starts with a fair bit of preamble setting the stage for the teaching that's about to be given. I've skipped over that for today's purposes because I'd rather focus on the practice, but feel free to click on the link above and check out the first section of MN118 for yourself if you're interested.
Next, the Buddha says a few words about the value and importance of the Anapanasati practice (translated here as 'mindfulness of breathing'):
"When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it is of great fruit and great benefit. When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness. When the four foundations of mindfulness are developed and cultivated, they fulfil the seven enlightenment factors. When the seven enlightenment factors are developed and cultivated, they fulfil true knowledge and deliverance."
The Buddha starts by saying simply that the practice of Anapanasati is 'of great fruit and great benefit'. It's a good thing to do!
Next, he says that it 'fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness', i.e. the four satipatthanas listed above - body, vedana, mind, dhammas. We'll see how that works in detail over the next few weeks, but, as already noted, the general idea is that we'll be doing a four-part practice where each part explores one of these satipatthanas in detail.
Then he says that Anapanasati '[fulfils] the seven enlightenment factors', or seven factors of awakening. These factors - mindfulness, investigation of reality, energy, joy/rapture, tranquility, concentration and equanimity - are supporting conditions for the transformative insights that lead to awakening, or enlightenment, in Buddhist practice. I've already written previously about how bringing mindfulness to something enjoyable or otherwise rewarding leads these seven factors to arise naturally - and, as we'll see, the invitation in this discourse is to develop an enjoyable, rewarding relationship with our own experience through the vehicle of the breath.
Finally, the Buddha says that Anapanasati '[fulfils] true knowledge and deliverance' - in other words, that this practice will lead us to insight and, ultimately, awakening. As sales pitches go, that's pretty good.
Preliminaries - setting up your practice
OK, so we've bought the sales pitch and signed up to the Anapanasati Newsletter - now, how do we actually do the practice?
"And how is mindfulness of breathing developed and cultivated, so that it is of great fruit and great benefit?
"Here, a practitioner, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, 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."
These are the same instructions we saw in the Satipatthana Sutta (which actually begins the practice instructions with the first tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutta). First off, we need a suitable place to practise. We're going to be going deep in this practice, so it's in our interests to minimise distractions to whatever extent we can. In the time of the Buddha, the standard approach was to head off into the forest and find a quiet place where nobody would bother you; in today's world, perhaps that means closing the door and asking whoever you share your space with not to bother you for a while.
Once you have your place, the Buddha recommends sitting down cross-legged and holding the body erect. What you do with your legs is actually not so important - the main thing is that the hips should be higher than the knees, to enable the core of the body to relax. Sitting in a chair is fine if you find that easier than sitting on the floor.
It is helpful to have an upright spine, however. Holding the body in an upright, aligned posture helps to keep us awake and alert during the practice, and once the postural muscles have strengthened sufficiently to allow us to sit without back support, it can actually become a comfortable and relaxed way to be. That said, if you have trouble with back pain, do what you gotta do. The key is to find a posture which balances comfort and relaxation with alertness. If you can do that, you're good to go.
The final preliminary step is to establish mindfulness on one's breathing. You don't have to breathe in a particular way - your natural breath is fine, although if you do find yourself controlling your breath it isn't a big deal. Over time you'll find that you're able to let go and just allow the body to breathe by itself, while you simply observe the process.
It can be worthwhile to take a bit of time to explore the breath. You may feel multiple different types of sensations as you breathe - perhaps the flow of air against the nostrils or the mouth, maybe movement in the shoulders or chest, the ribcage, the diaphragm or the abdomen. There's no right or wrong sensation to be feeling - this step of the practice is simply about getting in touch with what you're noticing in your own breathing, right now, moment by moment. Then, once you have a sense of what's going on, find wherever the breath feels clearest or most noticeable to you, and 'anchor' your attention there, rather than continuing to move around the body. Paying attention to a single place in the body will help your mind to settle and stabilise as the practice continues.
Of course, your mind will wander from time to time, perhaps often. That's fine. Whenever you notice that your attention has wandered, simply let go of whatever distraction the mind has taken an interest in, take a moment to relax, and then return your attention to the process of breathing. Take particular care around the 'gaps' in the breath - the moment after the in-breath has finished and before the out-breath has started, or vice versa. In those brief moments of 'no breath', the sensations of breath have temporarily stopped, and that's a prime time for the mind to wander. I find it helps to keep focusing on the space where the sensations are happening, even when the sensations themselves are absent - that has a way of 'bridging the gap' between one breath and the next.
At this point, you might have noticed that we're already practising 'mindfulness of breathing', but we're still in the section of the article labelled 'preliminaries'. What's up with that? Well, it turns out that although the Anapanasati Sutta is literally called 'the discourse of mindfulness of in-breath and out-breath', the practices we're going to explore actually use mindfulness of breathing as a kind of 'foundational' practice. Throughout each of the following sixteen steps, we'll continue to keep part of our attention on the breathing, using the breath as an 'anchor' to keep us grounded in the practice, but we'll also be doing other things as we go along. So it's very helpful to have established this 'simple' mindfulness of breathing before proceeding further - that's not to say that you have to have 100% uninterrupted mindfulness of breathing with no mind-wandering (which is a very high standard, and not practical for most people off retreat), but if you've never done this kind of meditation before, it's worth spending some time getting used to it. It's a great practice even without the 'extra bits'!
Once your foundations are in place, we can move on to the first tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutta: the body.
Mindfulness of the body, steps 1 and 2: the length of the 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.'
Having already established our mindfulness of breathing as a preliminary step, we now begin our deeper exploration by focusing on the length of each breath. This is not a matter of controlling the breath, and deliberately breathing more deeply or more shallowly, but rather about noticing the natural variation in each breath. The chances are that your breaths are not perfectly uniform - that some are slightly longer and some slightly shorter. So this is the first part of the practice: to notice those variations in length, whether significant or subtle.
(Sidebar: although these two are counted as separate 'steps' for the purposes of making the practices in this section add up to four in total, it doesn't really make sense to practise noticing only the long breaths, then subsequently practise noticing only the short breaths. After all, how do you know that a breath is long if you don't have a sense of a shorter breath to compare it to? For this reason, some scholars have suggested - and some parallel copies of the discourse also indicate - that, actually, the 'simple mindfulness of breathing' that we discussed in the 'preliminaries' section above should actually be the first practice in the first tetrad, and that 'noticing short/long breaths' should be the second practice. It really doesn't make much difference, though - either way, we start by establishing 'plain' mindfulness of breathing, then move on to noticing the lengths of the breath.)
Notice that, although the breathing is still at the forefront of the practice, we've already had to 'zoom out' a little. In order to tell whether a breath is short or long, we have to have a sense of how long a 'typical' breath is, which means we have to track what's happening over time, not merely have our noses pressed up against the window of the present moment. So even these first two steps are moving us beyond 'simple' mindfulness of breathing, and asking us to develop a broader, more inclusive awareness of what's going on. As we do that - as we take a step back, 'zooming out' a little bit - we're likely to find that the mind tends to wander a little more at first, because it's now doing something a bit subtler and more complicated. But stay with it - the mind will settle down again if you give it time, and when it does settle, it'll be more focused and more powerful than it was before.
Then, when we're ready to move on, we're going to zoom out even more, but this time in space rather than in time.
Mindfulness of the body, step 3: experiencing the whole body
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.'
(Sidebar: sometimes you'll see this translated as '...experiencing the whole body of breath', which is a popular translation among people who like to keep their area of focus small and precise rather than broader and more expansive. Here, I follow Bhikkhu Analayo's translation and interpretation, which makes more sense to me.)
Up until now we've been focusing on the sensations of the breath at a particular place in the body. In the first two steps we expanded our awareness out in time, becoming aware both of the length of the breath that's happening right now and also the lengths of breaths in general.
Now, in this third step, we zoom out in space, opening up our awareness to take in the body as a whole. We continue to track each breath, using the rhythm of in-breath-out-breath to keep us anchored; but now we experience the breath as it's felt in the whole body, not the single point where we originally chose to focus. This presents us with a different kind of challenge. Some people find it more difficult at first to keep track of the breath when the field of attention is opened up more broadly - there's potentially more to distract us, and we can potentially find our attention 'wandering around' within the broader field of the body, rather than resting in a more focused way on the body as a whole. So that's the challenge! With practice, it's possible to stabilise the attention on this larger field of sensation, still 'primarily' focused on the feeling of the breathing, but 'secondarily' having a broader awareness of what's going on in the rest of the body. If we previously had the breath-at-a-point in the 'foreground' of our experience and everything else relegated to the 'background' of experience, now we have a 'middle ground' of experience as well.
Developing this kind of flexibility of attention is a very helpful skill. We'll need to be able to manage foreground, background and middle ground as we continue to move through this sutta; and, more generally, the ability to focus broadly as well as narrowly is a tremendous asset in life, most of which is not about focusing on microscopic details - at least for most people!
Once you're able to broaden your attention out to encompass the whole body, without losing the rhythm of the breath at the heart of your experience, you can move on to the fourth and final step for this tetrad.
Mindfulness of the body, step 4: calming the body
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in calming bodily activity'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out calming bodily activity.'
Now we make another interesting move: we introduce a deliberate intention into the practice, specifically the intention to calm bodily activity.
The theme of this first tetrad is mindfulness of the body. We begin by paying attention to one aspect of bodily activity - the breathing. Then we refine that attention, sharpening our minds by challenging ourselves to notice not just the immediate sensations of the breath but also something more complex - the lengths of the breaths. These first steps are designed to train the mind to pay close attention; we start small, because for most people that's easier, then gradually expand in both time and space, until we're able to bring some degree of mindfulness to the whole body - thereby fulfilling the first satipatthana, mindfulness of body.
As we now look ahead to the subsequent tetrads, we must prepare ourselves to move beyond the body so that we can explore mental activity. Generally speaking, bodily activity is comparatively coarse while mental activity is comparatively subtle, so it makes sense to start with the body and then move on to mental activity. But if the body is still creating a lot of noise then it'll be difficult to focus on the quieter mental activity 'behind' it - so the fourth and final step of the present tetrad is to calm the body.
Body and breath are closely intertwined, as you'll see very clearly when you start doing this practice. By calming the breath, we calm the body; and by calming the body, we calm the breath. How can we do this? Subtly emphasising and extending the exhalation helps to calm the breath; relaxing muscular tension and settling into stillness helps to calm the body; and because the two are interrelated, calming one will tend to calm the other.
It's crucially important to approach this with a spirit of gentleness. Trying to force something to relax is deeply counterproductive, and will typically increase the discomfort, agitation and tension in the long run. If you suddenly try to slow down your breath dramatically, your body will fight back. So take it slowly and gently. It can be enough to hold the intention to calm breath and body, without taking any conscious steps to make that happen. Give it a try - you might be surprised.
Something else to notice in this step is that, as the breath and body calm down, you'll probably start to feel pretty good. It turns out that the body likes to be calm and quiet - although you wouldn't know it based on how strongly we tend to associate being 'excited' with 'feeling good'. Earlier on in this article I noted that the seven factors of awakening arise naturally when we pay attention to something enjoyable or otherwise rewarding - and experiencing a calm body fits the bill.
This first tetrad can thus actually be a complete practice in itself, a step-by-step means to cultivate mindfulness of the body, concentration and relaxation. Indeed, there are other discourses elsewhere in the Pali canon which only list these first four steps, and not the subsequent twelve.
So, for now, please take this tetrad away and give it a go - and then come back next week for the second tetrad, which will take us beyond the body and into our mental activity. See you then!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!