Mindfulness of Breathing-a short teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh

Probably no practice of Buddhism is more basic or more universal than anapanasati, or mindfulness of breathing.

The word ânàpànasati is a Pali word that literally means mindfulness (or full awareness) on the in- and out-breath.

It would be a mistake, however to conclude that anapanasati only means mindfulness established on in and out breathing. Actually it means mindfulness established on an object all the time with each in and out breath. This is a subtle but very important point to keep in mind as one advances in meditation.

It’s true that initially one establishes mindfulness on breathing itself. But mindfulness of the in- and out-breath is only the first step that the Buddha taught—no doubt because the breath is the most accessible and ever-present object one could use for developing mindfulness. After all, we all have to breathe!

In the Anapanasati Sutta, the Buddha outlines the comprehensive path of anapanasati he himself used as skillful means for achieving awakening. Once mindfulness of breath is established, the student then move on to mindfulness on different kinds of feeling and different states of mind. When this mindfulness is stable and strong, the practitioner develops mindfulness on various characteristics of impermanence. Finally, the Buddha teaches mindfulness on relinquishment, which is the ultimate objective of the practice and which leads to awakening and liberation.

But for most of us, just developing stable mindfulness on the in- and out-breath can prove quite challenging practice in itself! To help begin, here’s a wonderful short teaching by my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. In this excerpt from a talk he gave, Thây (his students’ affectionate name for him) explains some of the initial steps of developing mindfulness of breathing.

May this short teaching be an aid and inspiration to your mindfulness practice!

A Short Teaching on Mindfulness of Breathing

Thich Nhat Hanh

Please, when you breathe in, do not make an effort of breathing in. You just allow yourself to breathe in. Even if you don’t breathe in it will breathe in by itself. So don’t say, “My breath, come, so that I tell you how to do.” Don’t try to force anything, don’t try to intervene, just allow the breathing in to take place.

What you have to do is be aware of the fact that the breathing in is taking place. And you have more chance to enjoy your in-breath. Don’t struggle with your breath, that is what I recommend. Realize that your in breath is a wonder. When someone is dead, no matter what we do, the person will not breathe in again. So we are breathing in, that is a wonderful thing.

Breathing in I know I’m alive, it’s a miracle. We have to enjoy our in-breath. There are many ways to enjoy your in-breath. We want you to tell us how you enjoy your in-breath, whether in a sitting position or in a walking position. But if you don’t enjoy breathing in, breathing out, you don’t do it right.

This is the first recommendation on breathing that the Buddha made: When breathing in, I know this is the in-breath. When breathing out, I know this is the out-breath. When the in-breath is long, I know it is long. When it is short, I know it is short.  Just recognition, mere recognition, simple recognition of the presence of the in-breath and out-breath. When you do that, suddenly you become entirely present. What a miracle, because to meditate means to be there. To be there with yourself, to be there with your in‑breath.

So you now understand the two sentences [from the Anapanasati Sutta] , “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” And a few minutes later, “Breathing in I know my in-breath has become deep. Breathing out, I know my out-breath has become slow.” That is not an effort to make the in-breath deeper or the out-breath slower. That is only a recognition of the fact. After having followed your in-breath and out-breath for a few minutes you will notice that your in-breath and out-breath now have a much better quality, because mindfulness, when touching anything, increases the quality of that thing. The Buddha when he touches something, reveals and increases the quality of being of that thing. Mindfulness is the Buddha, therefore it plays that role.

When you look at the full moon, and if you are mindful, “Breathing in I see the full moon, breathing out I smile at the full moon,” suddenly the full moon reveals itself to you maybe one hundred times more clearly. It’s more beautiful, it’s clearer, it’s more enjoyable. Why? Because the moon has been touched by mindfulness.

So when you touch your in-breath and out-breath with your mindfulness, your in-breath becomes more harmonious, more gentle, deeper, slower, and so does your out-breath. Now you enjoy in-breathing and out-breathing. Naturally your breathing becomes more enjoyable, the quality of your breathing increases. So “In/Out” is for the beginning. Then “Deep/Slow” is the next step: “Breathing in, I know that my in breath has become deep and I enjoy it. Breathing out, I see that my out-breath has become slow and I enjoy it.”

During that time you have stopped, you have allowed your body and your mind to rest. Even if you are walking, you are resting. If you are sitting, you are resting. You are not struggling anymore, on your cushion, or walking. Then later on you will try this. These words are only to help you to recognize what is happening. “Calm/Ease: Breathing in I feel the calm in me.” This is not autosuggestion, because if you have enjoyed In/Out and Deep/Slow, calm is something that is established. Resting. If you touched your calm, your calm rose. It’s like when you touched the moon. “Breathing out, I feel ease in me.” I don’t suffer anymore. I will not make it hard anymore.

Don’t be too hard on yourself. Allow yourself to be at ease with yourself. Don’t struggle. All of these can be done even if lots of suffering is still in your body and in your soul. Doing this, we are taking care of them. We are not trying to escape the pain in us. We are giving our body and our consciousness a rest.

Excerpt from a Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on July 30, 1996 in Plum Village, France

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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

8 Responses to “Mindfulness of Breathing-a short teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh”

  1. thank you for posting this! you encouraged me, to translate (and comment) this in parts into german… looking forward to it, because I love breathing in and out and to plung into thich nhat hanh’s teachings…

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