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Friday, April 10, 2015

Breathing

The 17th Karmapa, head of one of the Tibetan Buddhist lineages, is touring the US, visiting sites such as Google, Facebook, and a number of colleges and universities. He's also meeting with Tibetan Buddhists, and in one of his appearances offered detailed commentary on meditation:

He noted that one of the most widely known forms of meditation involves focusing one’s attention on the breath. “One of the reasons for this,” he commented, “is that we are breathing all the time. Because our breath is an ongoing, pre-existing thing, it does not have to be created for the purpose of meditation.” This underscores the fact that meditation is not aimed at seeking out new experiences or reaching some new state. Rather, he stated, we notice the breath by directing our mind to what is already present, without altering or fabricating anything. “We are simply using the awareness of breathing as a focus for developing the mind’s ability to be aware of a chosen object,” the 17th Karmapa said.

“I think there is another particular reason for focusing the mind on breathing,” he added. “The breath is critically necessary for us to remain alive — after all if we stop breathing we stop living. We normally pay no attention to it but take it for granted. Therefore when you focus your mind on the breath, this also instills in you a greater appreciation of being alive, a sense of delight or rejoicing in the fact that your life is continuing.”

He then reflected on the methods used for meditating on the breath, noting that one way is to count the breath. “But,” he observed, “counting can be difficult and actually become a distraction. This depends on the individual, but for many people, using the counting breath technique is problematic. There are other traditions in which one does not count the breath. One simply observes the in-breath and the out-breath, allowing one’s mind to be merely aware of the breathing, allowing one’s mind to rest on or in the exhalation and inhalation. I think this may be better than counting.

“As for how one breathes when directing the mind to the breath,” he continued, “one should breathe naturally as one does usually. There is no special manipulation or control of the breathing. You do not try to breathe in and out with more force or slow down the breathing or speed it up or anything like that. I mention this because sometimes people expect that a technique where the mind is focused on the breathing would involve some kind of special manipulation or control of the breath, but in this case it does not. The breathing is ordinary. No special effort is needed.”

“The point of this,” he said, “is that while we breathe tens of thousands of times every day, we usually pay no attention to it and are often completely unaware that we are breathing. We continue to breathe, but we do not notice that fact. Here what we are trying to do is notice the breath by directing our mind to it.”
Commenting on posture, he said, it should be straight and erect posture, either cross-legged or in a chair. "The point of posture is that the breathing be easy and relaxed.”

“The aim of meditation practice,” he said, “is to return to our own nature and to sustain the natural state of our mind. It is like returning home from a journey. We want to be able to come to rest and relax in that. Therefore meditation is not the alteration of the mind’s natural condition, nor is it the superimposition or exaggeration of anything. Especially in the practice of shamatha meditation, this is the most important point. We are trying to come to rest in our ordinary, natural state of mind.”