This excerpt from a talk by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh explains how to use mindfulness of breathing to bring loving-kindness to our dear bodies. The physical effect of this can be truly remarkable. As Thây says, “You should really love your body. You should really take care of your body. Mindful breathing, with rest, can do miracles. “
The First Exercise of Mindful Breathing
My dear friends, yesterday I spoke about the first exercise proposed by the Buddha concerning mindful breathing: “Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in; breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.” To recognize breathing is the first exercise. There are four exercises about mindful breathing concerning the body.
We should always start with our physical bodies, because our physical bodies also needs peace, harmony and rest. In order for our mind to be concentrated, and also for our minds to be in peace and harmony, walking meditation, sitting meditation, and deep relaxation are exercises that concern our physical bodies.
We should realize a true rest. We have lost our capacity to really rest our bodies. That is why we all need vacations to rest, but to rest is an art. Many among us know how to rest, but some others don’t know how to rest. Our bodies need rest in order to heal. There are wounds in our bodies, as in our minds, and rest is necessary. The practice of mindful breathing allows us to realize this rest.
Animals in the forest, every time they are wounded, know how to rest. They look for a very quiet place, and they just stay there, without moving, for many days. They know it’s the best way for their bodies to heal. During this time they don’t even think to eat or to run after prey. This wisdom is still alive in animals, but we human beings have lost the capacity to rest. We know we need vacations, we need rest, but we don’t know how to use the time that is given to us. Sometimes, after a vacation, we are more tired than if we didn’t have the vacation. So we have to learn how to rest.
Deep relaxation here is one of the methods of resting. Walking meditation is also a method. Sitting meditation is another means to rest. In order to rest, you have to know how to use your breathing. The first exercise the first exercise that the Buddha proposed is “While I am breathing in, I am aware that this is breathing in; and I breathe out, and I am aware that I am breathing out.” Recognizing breathing in as breathing in, and breathing out as breathing out.
The Second Exercise of Mindful Breathing
The second exercise: “I breathe in, and I am aware of the length of my in-breath; breathing out, I am aware of the length of my out-breath.” During the second exercise, we are aware of the length of the in-breath and the out-breath. That means that we are aware only of breathing in and breathing out. If your in-breath is long like this…you are aware of the in-breath all during the length of the in-breath. That doesn’t mean that a long in-breath is better than a short in-breath. What is important here is mindfulness. It is not the length of breathing in or breathing out. If the in-breath is long, you know it. If the out-breath is long, you know it, that is all.
Do not try to prolong the breath; just allow it to be the way it is, naturally. If it’s short, let it be short. You only need to light the light of mindfulness to recognize what is gong on at that moment. In this case it is a long in-breath, in that case it is an in-breath of another length. Light up the light of mindfulness, in order to recognize that this is an in-breath and it is quite a long in-breath. During practice you touch deeply your in-breath and your out-breath, and you stop thoughts. We should not interfere with the length of the breath, only being aware of what is going on.
So, during the first exercise, breathing in, breathing out; during the second, long and short. During the second exercise we are aware of the length of the in-breath or the out-breath.
The Third Exercise of Mindful Breathing
With the third, I breathe in and I am aware of my whole body. That means while you breathe like this, you generate energy of mindfulness, and with the energy of mindfulness you embrace your whole body.
You recognize your whole body being present here, either sitting, lying down, standing, or walking. Breathing is to generate the object of mindfulness. The object of mindfulness here is the whole body. You know that in the first exercise the object of mindfulness is in-breath, out-breath. In the second exercise, the object is length of the breath; in the third, it is to embrace, to contact, to touch something that is more than the breath, the physical body.
The physical body is the foundation of the breath. So you start with pure breathing, and you arrive at your physical body. Breathing in, I am aware of my whole physical body; breathing out, I am aware of my whole physical body. That way, we start to recognize our whole physical body, we embrace it, and we are at peace with it. “Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body.” This seems to be very simple, but it is extremely important. We started to come back to the breath, and after becoming one with our in-breath, now we are becoming one with our physical body. This is returning, coming back. We wandered a lot in the past, but now we are determined to come back to ourselves. The first destination is the breath, and then it is the body, and later the feelings, the perceptions, and consciousness, knowledge.
Take another step in order to come back to yourself as a physical body: “Breathing in, I am aware of my whole physical body.” This is already a love meditation. We have to be very interested in our physical body. “I recognize you, my physical body. I have abandoned you too much, but now I’m coming back, and I recognize you as existing.”
The Fourth Exercise of Mindful Breathing
Number four: “Breathing in, I calm the activities of my physical body.” Because there has not been enough peace in your physical body, not enough harmony, there are wars in your physical body, sorrow, or pain; so you should be here for your physical body. “My physical body, I am here for you.” Take care, be interested in your physical body, and start to take care of your physical body. “I breathe in, and I calm my physical body.
When in a lying position, practicing deep relaxation, you can realize rest and recovering of your physical body. You have room in your home where you can practice deep relaxation every day. You can practice this as a family. One member of the family can guide the practice of deep relaxation. Here in Plum Village the brothers and the sisters can show you how to practice deep and complete relaxation. You have to learn that very carefully, in order to do it when you get back home. Also you can teach that to the children. We can practice this as a family, a family is a Sangha. One member of the family can guide the practice of relaxation. During fifteen or twenty minutes, we can re-establish our mindfulness, we can dissipate stress. It is very important to practice as a group, as a Sangha, as a family, and this will create a good habit among your children.
The third exercise is recognizing the presence of your physical body. The fourth exercise is to calm the activities of your physical body, being aware of your physical body as a whole, and then being aware of different parts of your physical body.
Bringing Mindful Breathing to Parts of Your Body
The next four exercises are about feelings, but today we will speak only about the first set of four exercises. In the Satipatthana Sutra, the Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha said, “Like a farmer who goes into the attic and brings down a bag of grain, and opens it and lets all the seeds fall out onto the floor, and with his good eyes he can distinguish wheat from beans etc., when you generate mindfulness, with this mindfulness, you can identify different parts of your body.”
“I breathe in, I am aware of my eyes; I breathe out, and I smile to my eyes.” This is because your eyes are part of your physical body, and you can start with your eyes. Then you go down to the nose, the mouth. You are aware of your brain, of your ears, and you should call the different parts of your physical body by their names, and send to each part of your body your smile.
Your smile, in mindfulness, is the energy of love. Your awareness is first, and love comes with it. You have to take care of your physical body, that‘s what the Buddha said. In the sitting position, or lying down, you can start generating mindfulness, and you send this energy to different parts of your body. ” I breathe in and I am aware of my eyes; I breathe out, and I smile to my eyes.” Recognize your eyes as existing, and send to your eyes the energy of your awareness. You can start with your eyes, and you can finish with your feet.
There are about thirty-six parts of the body that are discussed in this discourse of the Buddha. So always with mindfulness of breathing, you embrace the different parts of your body. When one part of your body is not well, when there is pain, when something is not going well in one part of your body, you should stop, you should tenderly embrace this part of your body with mindfulness. You should send energy and love, and this will help this part of your body to heal. The ideal position in which to do it is to lie down.
If your child needs this, you can become your child’s guide in order to practice this. I will practice with you, my daughter; I will join my mindfulness energy with yours, in order for you to embrace this part of your body that is painful. I will smile to this part of your body. We can always practice as a Sangha, and we can do it every day, before going to bed, or after you wake up. You should always look for a moment to do it, even if you have a doctor who is treating you, even if you take medicines.
Resting and Letting the Body Heal Itself
You should know that only nature can really establish health in your body. The animals resting in the forest have a strong trust in nature. It’s because our bodies have the capacity to heal. When we cut a finger, what should we do to heal? It’s enough to wash the wound, and let nature do the rest. Our mind knows how to heal itself, so we should allow our body to do the work. If healing is not happening, this is because we don’t allow our body to heal, we have forbidden our body to heal, because we don’t rest. That’s how we prevent our body healing.
It is very important to allow our body to heal itself. We should have trust in the capacity of our own body to heal. Practice the non-practice. Don’t do anything—just allow your body to rest. With mindfulness and this rest, you can transform the state of your physical body. The Buddha has spoken at length about this practice. You should really love your body. You should really take care of your body. Mindful breathing, with rest, can do miracles. While taking medicine, you can still help the healing with the practice of mindfulness of breathing and rest.
Excerpt from a dharma talk entitled “Mindfulness of Breathing” given by Thich Nhat Hanh on July 24, 1998 in Plum Village, France.