In a previous post, I shared a teaching from Thich Nhat Hanh titled “Healing the Body with Mindfulness of Breathing.” This post has proven helpful and inspiring to many people, so I wanted to share something from Thây’s Theravadan brother-in-the-dharma, Thanissaro Bhikkhu. (Thây, by the way, is Thich Nhat Hanh’s students’ affectionate name for him)
Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s talk is called “Bathed in the Breath” and I think it’s a wonderful co-partner for Thây’s “Healing the Body with Mindfulness of Breathing.”
One of the things I’ve always loved about Thây is how he not only draws from his own Mahayana tradition, but also studies and works with Theravadan sutta (sutras), such as the Anapanasati Sutta. In fact, it was Thây’s obvious familiarity with the Pali canon that inspired me to learn about it for myself.
If you are looking for further insight into working with the breath to bring healing to your body, I think you will find “Bathed in Breath” a very skillful teaching. This particular breathing practice is something I do regularly, and I can personally attest that it does brings about physical as well as mental healing.
Bathed in the Breath
When there’s a Dharma talk, you don’t have to listen to the Dharma talk. The important thing is to stay with your breath. When the breath comes in, you know it’s coming in; when it goes out, you know it’s going out. Try to make that knowledge of the breath fill your awareness as much as possible. The Dharma talk here is meant to be a fence to keep you with the breath.
When the mind wanders off, here’s the sound of the Dharma to remind you to go back to the breath, but when you’re with the breath you don’t need reminding. You do your own reminding. That’s what the mindfulness does in the meditation. Each time you breathe in, each time you breathe out, remind yourself to stay with the breath. Make just a little mental note: “This is where you want to stay; this is where you want to stay.”
And try not to think of yourself as inhabiting one part of the body watching the breath in another part of the body. Think of the breath as all around you. It’s coming in and out the front, coming in and out the back, down from the top, all the way out to your fingers, all the way out to your toes. There’s a subtle breath energy coming in and out of the body all the time. If you’re in one part of the body watching the breath in the other part, there tends to be a habit of blocking the breath energy to make space for that sense of “you” in the part of the body that’s watching.
So think of yourself as totally surrounded by the breath, bathed in the breath, and then survey the whole body to see where there are still sections of the body that are tense or tight, that are preventing the breath from coming in and going out. Allow them to loosen up. This way you allow for the fullness of the breath to come in, go out, each time there’s an in-breath, each time there’s an out-breath. Actually the fullness doesn’t go in and out. There’s just a quality of fullness that’s bathed by the breath coming in, bathed by the breath going out. It’s not squeezed out by the breath. It’s not forced out by the breath. Each nerve in the body is allowed to relax and have a sense of fullness, right here, right now. Then simply try to maintain that sense of fullness by the way you breathe. Your focus is on the breath, but you can’t help but notice the fullness.
If you can’t get that sense of fullness going throughout the whole body, find at least some part of the body that doesn’t feel squeezed out, that feels open and expansive, and then see if you can copy that same feeling tone in other parts of the body. You might notice that there are different parts of the body where it feels open like that and allow them to connect. At first, nothing much will happen from that sense of connection, but allow it to stay open, stay open. Each time you breathe in, each time you breathe out, have that sense of openness, openness, and the sense of connection will get stronger.
This is why the ability to stay with these sensations is so important, because your staying with them is what allows them to grow. If you move off to someplace else, if you’re thinking of something else, there will have to be a tensing up in the body to allow that thought to happen. And so whatever sense of fullness might have developed—say, in your arms or your legs, in different parts of the body, down your back—doesn’t have a chance to develop. It gets squeezed off because you’re not paying attention to it any more.
Make Your Awareness 360 degrees, Not One Little Spot
This is why the Buddha talks about concentration as an enlarged type of awareness. If your awareness is limited just to one little spot, everything else gets squeezed out, everything else gets blocked out—and what is that if not ignorance? You’re trying to make your awareness 360 degrees, all around, and all around in all directions, because the habit of the mind is to focus its awareness in one spot here, then one spot there, moving around, but there’s always the one spot, one spot, one spot. It opens up a little bit and then squeezes off again, opens up a little bit, squeezes off again, and nothing has a chance to grow. But if you allow things to open up throughout the whole body, then you realize that if you think about anything at all you destroy that openness. So you’ve got to be very, very careful, very, very still, to allow this fullness to develop.
So these qualities of consistency, care, heedfulness—these are important in allowing this state of concentration to develop. Without them, nothing much seems to happen. You have a little bit of concentration, then you step on it, a little bit of concentration, then you squeeze it off as you go looking at something else, thinking about something else. And so whatever little bits and pieces of concentration you do have, don’t seem very remarkable. They don’t get a chance to be remarkable. They take time—and our society’s one of the more remarkable societies in giving us expectations that things should happen quickly. If anything’s going to be good, it has to happen quickly, it has to be instant. And so, by and large, we’ve lost the ability to stay with things as they develop slowly. We’ve lost the ability to keep chipping away, chipping away, chipping away at a large task that’s going to take time and can’t be speeded up.
Developing the Skills of Concentration
When the Buddha gives images for practicing concentration, he often relates them to skills. Skills take time, and he was teaching people who had taken the time to work on whatever skills they had. In Thailand, they still sharpen knives against stones. There are particular kinds of stones that are good for sharpening the knives, and it’s a skill you have to learn: how not to ruin the knife as you’re sharpening it, because if you get impatient, try to speed things up, you’ll ruin the sharpness of the blade. So you have to be very still.
The mind has to be still, and you have to maintain just the right amount of pressure constantly as you sharpen the blade. And it may seem like nothing is happening, but over time the blade does get sharper and sharper. The consistency of your pressure is what guarantees that the blade won’t get worn in one particular spot—too sharp in one spot and not sharp enough in another, too sharp in the sense that the blade is no longer straight. You’ve worn it down too much in one spot. There are a lot of things you have to watch out for, simply in the act of sharpening a blade. But when you have that skill in your repertoire, then when the time comes to meditate, it’s easier to relate to what you’re doing: that same kind of consistency, that same evenness of pressure, the continual mindfulness and alertness that are needed to maintain that proper pressure.
Another skill sometimes used as an analogy is that of a hunter. The hunter has to be very quiet so as not to disturb the animals, not to scare the animals off, and at the same time has to be very alert so as not to miss when a particular animal comes by. And our tendency as meditators is to slip off either into too much stillness or too much mental activity. You have to find the proper balance. I was talking to an anthropologist one time, and he said that of all the skills that primitive societies have and that anthropologists try to learn as they go into those societies, the hardest one to learn is hunting. It requires the strongest concentration, the most sensitivity. So here we’re not hunting animals, but we’re hunting concentration, which is even more subtle and requires even more stillness and alertness.
The Importance of Patience and Consistency
Sometimes we in the West think that we come to the Dharma with an advantage: we’ve got so much education. But we have a disadvantage in that we lack the patience and consistency that come with mastering a skill. So keep that in mind as you’re meditating, when you find yourself getting impatient for results. You simply have to be watchful and consistent. You need that sense of being bathed by the breath, being open to the breathing sensations in all parts of the body down to every little pore of your skin. Then you learn the sensitivity that’s required, the consistency that’s required, to maintain that.
That way the sense of fullness can grow and grow and grow until it really becomes gratifying, really satisfying, to give the concentration the kind of strength, the sense of refreshment, the sense of nourishment that it needs in order to keep going. Ajaan Fuang once said that without this sense of fullness, refreshment, or rapture, your meditation gets dry. This is a lubricant that keeps things smooth and running: the sense of well-being and refreshment, the immediate visceral pleasure of being in a concentrated state.
Healing Our Mental Wounds
At the same time, it heals all our mental wounds: any sense of tiredness, of being stressed-out. It’s like medicine for these mental wounds. Now, medicine often takes time to work, especially healing and soothing medicine. Think of the creams you put on your skin when your skin gets chapped. It’s not that you put the cream on and the skin is immediately is cured. It takes time. The skin has to be exposed to the cream for long periods of time to allow the cream to do its work. The same with concentration. It takes time to expose your nervous system to the sense of fullness, giving it a chance to breathe in, breath out all around so that the mindfulness and the breath together can do their healing work.
So don’t get impatient, don’t feel that nothing is happening. A lot of things that are very important require time, and they do their work subtly. If you give them the time they need, you find that you’re more than repaid. After all, you could be sitting for the whole hour planning next week, planning next month, planning next year. What will you have at the end of the hour? A lot of plans. And part of you may feel satisfied that you’ve provided for the future, but then when you reflect on how many of your past plans have actually borne results, you’ll realize that the odds are against your new plans’ ever amounting to much. What would you have to show for your hour? Nothing very certain. Maybe nothing but straw. But if you give the breath an hour to do its healing work, opening the body totally up to allow the breath to bathe every nerve in the body out to every pore, you know that you’ll come out at the end of the hour with a body and mind in much better shape. The body will be soothed body; the mind, bright and alert.
And you don’t need to stop being bathed in the breath when the hour is up. You can keep it going in all your activities. That way, even though you may not be armed with a whole set of plans for facing the future, at least you’re in a position where you don’t need that kind of armor. You’ve got the armor of a healthy body and mind. You’ve got an invisible armor: the force field of this all- encompassing breath, continually streaming out from your center to every pore, protecting you on all sides. That’s something you feel in every cell of your body, something that you know for sure, for you can sense it all around you, right here and now. And you know that whatever the future brings, you’re prepared. You can handle it. This sense of fullness, brightness, alertness: that’s all you’ll need to keep the mind capable, healthy, and strong.