Mindfulness of Breathing

Discussion Facilitator: Bruce Cantwell. March 30, 2019.

Breath can be used as a meditation object either to practice mindfulness or concentration. Since we’re approaching the end of March Madness, I’ve included the mindfulness instructions from an updated version of the Satipatthana Sutta[1] as a “play-by-play” with “color commentary” from the book The Four Foundations of Mindfulness[2] by Henepola Gunaratana, affectionately known to his students as Bhante G.

SS: How do we observe the constituents of the body? 

Go to the forest, or to the foot of a tree, or to an empty room.

Sit down cross-legged, keeping the body upright.

Fix awareness in the area around the nostrils, or the chest, or the belly.

With this awareness, breathe in.

With this focus, breathe out. 

Breathing in a deep breath, notice a deep breath.

Exhaling deeply, observe a deep exhale.

With a shallow inhalation, experience a shallow inhalation.

Breathing out a shallow breath, be present with a shallow breath. 

BG: When we pay attention to its natural rhythm, the breath becomes calm. Simultaneously, the mind quiets down. It all happens naturally. Mindfulness itself makes the breath relax. Any force is counterproductive. Agitation or extra effort makes our breathing speed up. When this happens, we pay attention to the fast breathing and notice the agitation. Then we relax the mind, and the agitation disappears by itself.

SS: In this way, observe how deep and shallow breathing affects the body. 

Feeling the whole body, breathe in.

Attending the whole body, breathe out. 

BG: Feeling refers to our sensations of the breath and the emotions we experience as a result: the anxiety we feel when we sense that our lungs are empty and our feeling of relief when we inhale.

When we experience tension, we remind ourselves not to be disappointed. When we experience pleasure, we remember not to attach to it.

We remind ourselves that our underlying preference for pleasant feelings often arises from desire, which can lead to greed for sensual pleasure. But when we crave pleasure, we always end up suffering, because like all impermanent things, pleasure eventually changes or disappears. We also remember that our underlying tendency to avoid unpleasant feelings often arises from resentment, which can lead to anger. We observe these tendencies, our greed and our anger, and then let them go, returning our attention to the breath.

SS: Train to calm the body with the in breath.

Train to ease the body with the exhale.

BG: While the mind is engaged with the breath-body, the mind and the breath are relaxed. When they are relaxed, the rest of our body is also relaxed. This is so because the breath is part of the body.

SS: Pay close attention to the breath internally. 

Or pay close attention to the breath externally. 

Or maintain awareness of the breath internally and externally.


BG: The breath that we have inhaled is internal. When we exhale, this internal breath mixes with the external air. Then the breath is external. We might also say that the internal body is inhaling, and the external body is exhaling.

SS: Contemplate in breath its nature of arising.

Consider in breath its nature of passing away.

BG: With mindfulness, we notice in a microscopic way our body’s expansion or rising as we breathe in and contraction or falling as we breathe out.

SS: Establish awareness that this is breath to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continued mindfulness.

BG: We notice that all aspects of the breath consist of three very minor moments: the rising moment, the living or enduring moment, and the passing away moment. The same is true of all things that exist. 

SS: Practice this awareness with dispassion toward everything in the world of mind and matter. 

BG: While you are practicing mindfulness of the breath, the mind does not stay with the sensation of breathing. It goes to sense objects such as sounds, and mental objects such as memories, emotions, and perceptions. When you experience these other objects, you should forget about the breath for a while and focus your attention on them— one at a time. As each fades away, allow your mind to return to the breath, the home base for the mind and body.

Every time the mind returns to the breath, it comes back with deeper insight into impermanence, dissatisfaction, and selflessness.[3] 

The breath is free from greed, hatred, delusion, and fear. When the mind joins with the breath, the mind temporarily becomes free from greed, hatred, delusion, and fear. Relaxing the breath, breathe in. Relaxing the breath, breathe out. Then joy arises naturally. 

[1] “MahāsatipaṭṭhānaSutta.” Mahasatipatthana Sutta - The Great Discourse on the Establishing of Awareness, www.tipitaka.org/stp-pali-eng-parallel.shtml#24.

[2] Gunaratana, Henepola. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English. Wisdom Publications, 2013.

[3] Gunaratana, Henepola. Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness: Walking the Path of the Buddha. Wisdom Publications, 2001.

Bruce Cantwell