Notes on Talk Four
2015 Dhamma Talk Series

Pranayama : Self Meditation

Breath meditation is a staple of all contemplative traditions.

On the one hand I meet wannabe philosophers who only want to talk about things like non-duality. On the other hand I meet people who want to sit with the breath and attain all kinds of psychic powers.

Well, according to the Yoga Sutras, these powers are yours if you can stay with the breath. But most likely, that is not your experience. The people who really become meditators, are those who can train themselves to be happy with something so simple.

The fourth step in the Yoga Sutras Eightfold path, is Pranayama – watching the breath. As usual YS is straight to the point:

With effort relaxing, the flow of inhalation and exhalation can be brought to a standstill; this is called breath regulation.

As the movement patterns of each breath – inhalation, exhalation, lull – are observed as to duration, number, and area of focus, breath becomes spacious and subtle.

As realization dawns, the distinction between breathing in and out falls away.

Then the veil lifts from the mind’s luminosity. And the mind’s potential for concentration is realized


Why get back to the breath?

It is the same story as that of the previous factor, body awareness.

the constructed world that you inhabit is too vast to know. So you create ‘constructs’, which are stories to hold on to that guide your behaviour.

These stories might be conscious – which means you know what they are.

They may be sub-conscious – which means that if pushed and questioned, they can be verbalised. My example was the mountain man who was asked if living and foraging food on a dangerous Alaskan mountain was dangerous. He replied “A mountain man ah wuz born, a mountain man ah wuz raised. An’ ah hav no doubt, a mountain man ah will daih”.

Or stories might well be unconscious – which is where Freud made his money. Many people do not like Freud (he was a creepy cocaine addict after all) but many of his ideas still hold true. There is lots of research showing that we really do have a store of past, forgotten experiences, that can still affect behaviour.

[BTW the psychologist who brought us Personal Construct Theory was George Kelly – one of my favourite of the personality theory psychologists]

By way of illustration, I brought up the story of scientist Michael Faraday – the grandfather of the ‘electric society’ we still live in. He was experimenting with very subtle magnetic effects, eventually unifying electricity, magnetism and light into a general theory. Queen Victoria visited him and asked “Yes, but of what use is it all?”

His work was taken up by James Clerk Maxwell, who added the maths, which enabled accurate predictions. Later, the connection between light and electricity was taken further by a scientist who won a Nobel Prize for science for his paper showing how bathing certain materials in light caused them to emit electrons. Oh, and his prize was also for ‘other works‘. The Nobel committee considered his ‘other works’ to be too embarrassing to mention in detail. They were the General Theory of Relativity and the Special Theory of Relativity. [Einstein].

Together with Earnest Rutherford’s newly formed model of the atom, it was realized that Einsten’s e=mc2 could be used to split an atom in a controlled manner, leading to bombs, and nuclear energy. This was realized by the suitably creepily named Leo Szilard.

Why raise this story? Well, it is not because I am a great science history buff, though the above events are all familiar to me. It is mostly because I am rereading a book that really affected me when I was a kid, which some people asked me about :

carl sagan broca's brain
click image for details

It’s an old book, but it still holds up well. I find it interesting that Sagan was a good story teller, which is how come I remembered so much of the book even all these years later.

So, the breath is something that is ordinary. Like Queen Victoria, you might wonder ‘Yes, but of what use is it?’

There are hundreds of passages where the Buddha instructs his monks to make much of the breath. Sariputta, the Buddha’s main disciple advised such to Rahula, the Buddha’s own son:

Venerable Sariputta saw venerable Rahula seated cross-legged at the root of a certain tree, the body straight and mindfulness established in front of him. He said, ‘Rahula, develop in-breathing and out-breathing. When, in- and out-breathing is developed and made much, it brings good results and benefits.’ [maharahulaovada sutta]

One of the first things to note about the breath is that it is a neutral object. That is, it does not give rise to attraction or aversion.

The mind (citta) is, in every mystic tradition I have ever come across, compared to water. Water has no shape, nor smell, nor taste. It only takes on the properties of a container that holds it, or additives that are mixed into it. In the same way, citta has no form. But beings only see the objects of consciousness, not the citta that receives the objects. – remember that Enlightenment in the YS is talked about in this same way:

The preventable cause of all this suffering is the apparent indivisibility of pure awareness and what it regards


Pure awareness is just seeing, itself; although pure, it usually appears to operate through the perceiving mind.

It is the nature of the mind to reflect the qualities which are brought into attention. So if you think of something like kittens, your mind will become kindly (if you like kittens). If you think of something that you don’t like, then your mind will become angry or revolted. It’s a simple law, that is rarely talked about. If you observe it, you have to start asking yourself whether the things you call into your mind and put attention on are really wise things.

The breath is neutral, so putting your mind onto it will, in time, make your mind calm. Of course, this often means you fall asleep, but this is the art. Keeping your attention sharp and bright, while the mind is not moving about looking for things to call into attention.

Interestingly, according to Buddhism, there are three kinds of physical feelings – those you like, dislike and feel neutral towards. But in the mind, there are only two kinds of feeling, liking (somanassa) and disliking (domanassa). The texts say that a neutral physical feeling that is not consciously felt is counted as unpleasant in the mind. A neutral physical experience that is consciously felt is counted as pleasant.

Make of that what you will.

Personally, I see that people always shuffle about – this is the Dukkha of the body, that is not consciously felt, but nonetheless produces an effect. My own teacher had Parkinson’s and could not shuffle. He would sit wherever you left him. It was painful for him not to be able to adjust posture.

As for neutral feelings being pleasant, the breath is a great example. Make friends with it and sit with it regularly, and it is an immensely pleasant abiding. In fact, the first meditation that we teach people is to just watch the breath for at least 20 minutes a day. It gives you a place to escape this ‘constructed world’. The word ‘escape’ is ‘Sarana’ which we usually translate as ‘refuge’. (It might also mean ‘guide’)

Why is there a need for an ‘escape’? Well, coming back to this world that we understand through stories, rules of thumb and constructs; it can never be resolved. You won’t fix it, and even if you did, you would not be enlightened. This practise is not a theory to cling to, but a means of attaining to something completely different.

This is where we get the Zen idea, that to fill a cup with something, you have to first empty out the contents.

If you follow the breath, simple as it is, then the ‘world ceases’

I came across this in one teaching in the Buddhist sutras, that just stuck in my mind for many years (sorry I can’t find the exact reference right now)

If you see the arising of the world, you cannot say it is unreal.
If you see the cessation of the world, you cannot say it is real

As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the opposite of a mental quality is its absence. Thus if you follow the breath, you can observe the world disappearing. Then when you exit concentration, you see it re-arise. Seeing the arising and cessation in this way is key to Buddhism.

One of the regular teachings in Buddhism is that of Satisfaction, Misery and Escape. It is a topic in itself, so here we’ll only look at the gist:

  • If it were not for the satisfaction that can be gained from things in the world, then beings would not be so attached to it
  • If it were not for the suffering (instability) of the world, beings would never desire to see it’s cessation.
  • If it were not for the escape, there would be no resolution of the holy life.

So we do acknowledge that there are great things in the world. And that it is worth fighting for.

But one person I mentioned this too took great umbrage at the idea of an ‘escape’. She said that we have to fight for social justice. We should fight for peace. She did not like the idea of hermits slipping out of their responsibility to the world.

But does that mean that these enlightenment teachings should be hidden? Or put on hold until the world is sorted out? Being a meditator and developing a ‘sarana’ refuge is not for everyone. Just like not everyone in the world is going to become a hairdresser. It is a teaching worth keeping. And hopefully, those who practise well, are people who are a great blessing to the world.

Ajahn Lee, one of the famous Thai masters compare monks who practise insight only, and not concentration on the breath, as like a pilot of a plane, who flies in clear skies. But he does not know where to land. He said only if you develop the deep concentration, will you know where the landing strip is. [full text, Keeping the Breath in Mind]

As a final word on this, I want to point out the nature of the mind that is sitting with a neutral object like the breath. It has put aside intellecualisaiton. It is returning to something like a baby’s mind, that is alert, but not thinking; that is aware, but not lost in the objects of awareness. In the ways of the world it is a bit of a simpleton. But it has a sharpness that has to be experienced.

this is why the heroes of stores are not the old Knights. It is always a simple, innocent but strong character that is the hope of the future. Think of Jack in the Jack and the Beanstalk story. He was a ‘dullard’, yet sharp of wit. He did not know the ways of the world. Where were all the men who could have taken down the ogre?

Same for Samson – he had great strength while innocent. But Delilah put an end to that. Finally the only way Samson could prevail was to bring the whole temple down by pushing apart the supporting pillars. ….. hmmm – prehaps I’m the only one who remembers the story huh?

Luke Skywalker, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty etc… all represent the simple mind that is not too involved in the world.

In the talk I finished with a sample story from the suttas. A story is always a good way to finish.

The Buddha’s attendant at one time was called Meghiya. He spotted a cool grove while travelling. Once the Buddha was sorted out, Meghiya asked permission to leave, and go meditate in the grove. The Buddha replied ‘this is not the right time’.

Twice more Meghiya asked, until the Buddha finally said “fine, do as you like”.

Meghya went off to the grove, but was unable to meditate. His mind was beset by thinking. He returned to the Buddha, and was given some advice, on things to develop in order that meditation should go more smoothly. The initial list was of five qualities:

  1. to have good and wise friends
  2. to observe the rules of refined behaviour
  3. to hear sobering talk – talk on morality, contentment, seclusion, non-attachment, persistence, virtue, concentration, discernment.
  4. To be persistent in the Four Right Efforts
  5. To watch arising and ceasing

He then offered a couple of extra practises:

  • watch the unattractive elements of things to abandon lust
  • develop metta, to abandon ill-will
  • to stay with the breath, to abandon thinking
  • develop the insight into impermanence, to abandon the ‘I am’ conceit.

[full text of the Meghiya sutta is here]

So how did Michael Faraday answer Queen Victoria when she asked “Yes, but of what use is it?”.

Madam,” he said, “of what use is a baby.”