In the first two groups of skills we learned methods of relating to the breath by following and by consciously regulating the breath. One purpose of these exercises is to engage our attention by giving our-self something to do with the breath. By following and by counting/ regulating we bring into play more complex challenges, and involve greater dimensions of our attentional apparatus. We may also find the breath more interesting. One of the turning points in this practice is discovering a new world opening up beneath our noses! It’s rather amazing how engrossing the simple process of breathing in and out can become when we focus and marshal our latent powers of attention.
Thich Nhat Hahn is said to have remarked that he has spent over fifty years practicing mindfulness of the breath and he finds it more and more fascinating.
I am reminded of a poem by Kabir:
I do not know what manner of God is mine.
The Mullah cries aloud to Him: and why ? Is your Lord deaf? The subtle anklets that ring on the feet of an insect when it moves are heard of Him.
Our attention can become so refined, so gently acute, yet in a soft and pleasant way, that we feel as if we could hear the ringing of the subtle anklets on the feet of insects as they walk–and perhaps we might actually be able to if there were such marvelous creatures.
The refinement of our attentional skills generalizes into a wealth of benefits in our daily life, both mundane and sacred. We naturally become less restless, our capacity to turn our gaze and hold it on the discomfort of others increases and we are less driven to withhold our attention from others. We can focus more clearly on the task at hand. We can cut through the fog of everyday confusion effortlessly. We tap into a place within where clarity and appropriateness rule the land. The list is endless, the benefits infinite.
We’ll now look at a third set of techniques to heighten our attentional powers:
Guarding the breath at one point, and
Giving rise to an imaginary image at the guarding point.
First, we establish a “guarding point”–this can be the rims of the nostrils or the area of the upper lip. (I am using here terms suggested by the late Thai meditation teacher/monk Ajahn Buddhadassa). Some texts suggest the tip of the nose. Find for yourself where you feel the breath sensations at the area of the nose most precisely. An ancient metaphor is used as a teaching device in this regard: an animal grazer who naps in the afternoon while his herd grazes the fields, when he wakes rather than go searching for his animals he heads down to the shore of the nearby pond where he knows his animals will congregate in the late afternoon to have a drink, he simply goes to the shore of the pond and waits for the animals to show up.
Similarly, rather than go out searching for breath sensations we simply go to the shore of the pond, the guarding point of the breath, and wait for the breath to show up. We get comfortable and simply hang out at the area of the nose and wait for the breath sensations to turn up.
After we gain some experience with guarding the breath at one pont we can begin to work with the imaginary image. This is simply another device to increase our attentional skills and to draw out interest to the breath. By creating a mental image the texts inform us we are refining or “smoothing” the breath. The use of the image has been found by the thousands of meditators who have come before us to increasingly hold our attention while simultaneously calming our mind. To do this consistently and quietly draws out deeper levels of attentional skills and refines the entire breathing process.
The imaginary, or mental image, can be any shape or form. One of my teachers in Sri Lanka spoke of a tiny sphere of light that sparkled in dark blue and green hues. Some folks might spontaneously create an image form the natural world, a tiny sunrise, sunset, or a waxing or waning moon. Others might chhose a candle flame, a puff of cotton or smoke, or a gossamer-thin curtain softly blowing in the breeze of the breath.
We work with any of these four techniques as we feel it is appropriate. I would suggest that we do not frequently toggle between techniques, rather we dedicate a session to perhaps one or two techniques–such as following the breath and working with a mental image at the end of the session. One could spend much fruitful time just with one technique until we feel comfortable with it.By: Tom Davidson-Marx