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Breath Awareness and Meditation

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  • Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati
    BREATH AWARENESS AND MEDITATION Swami Rama Breath awareness is an essential part of meditation. The most well established schools of meditation teach breath
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 6, 2005
      Swami Rama

      Breath awareness is an essential part of meditation. The most well
      established schools of meditation teach breath awareness before
      leading a student toward an advanced technique of meditation, but
      some of the modern schools of meditation and relaxation do not
      understand the importance of breath awareness. In our daily lives we
      learn to move, but no one teaches us how to be still. This constant
      habit of movement makes our unconscious habits stronger and stronger,
      and finally all of our movements are controlled by our unconscious
      mind. When in the practice of meditation we begin to learn to still
      our bodies, we become aware of body twitches, tremors, and movements;
      then, when we begin learning the techniques of breath awareness, we
      become aware that we can have conscious control over the body,
      breath, and mind.

      All of the exercises of pranayama, or breath control, help the
      student to regulatE the motion of the lungs. Without such regulation,
      the respiratory system, the heart, the brain, and the autonomic
      nervous system do not function in a balanced way. People commonly
      assume that the involuntary system cannot be brought under voluntary
      control, and for the average person this seems true, but those who
      are accomplished in the art and science of breath control have proved
      that this assumption is false. The motion of the lungs must be
      brought under conscious control before advanced techniques of
      controlling the autonomic nervous system can be attempted.

      The science of breath is vital for a student who wants to learn the
      higher techniques of meditation. When we have learned to sit in a
      calm, quiet place in a comfortable, steady posture, and body tremors
      are no longer a source of disturbance, we find four irregularities in
      the breath: shallowness of breath, jerks in the breath, sounds in the
      breath, and pauses between inhalation and exhalation. These
      irregularities disturb the mind and prevent it from concentrating. In
      the early stages, students practice various methods of breathing in
      which they use their fingers to close and open the nostrils. We are
      not going to discuss those breathing exercises here, but one must
      practice them before practicing breath awareness, which is an
      advanced technique. Some schools of meditation, such as the Buddhist
      and Zen schools, do not teach these exercises as do the yoga schools,
      but for these schools also breath awareness is the most important
      step for meditation.

      In the monastic tradition, teachers do not impart the advanced
      techniques of meditation unless they see that the student has
      attained stillness of the body and serenity of the breath. Sitting
      still is very important--the less movement, the more steady the mind
      will be. All of the movements, gestures, tremors, and twitchings of
      the body are caused by an undisciplined and untrained mind. When we
      examine our behavior, we find that not a single act or gesture is
      independent of the mind. The mind moves first and then the body
      moves, and the more the body moves, the more the mind dissipates.


      Meditation expands awareness, but this does not mean that awareness
      should be external. It is a natural tendency of the mind to roam
      toward the objects of the world. This also can be considered
      awareness, but such awareness is completely dissipated and gross. The
      schools of meditation use awareness in a different way. Meditation
      teaches the student to make the mind one-pointed and inward. To some
      degree all human beings are aware of their environment and the things
      related to them. This is the dimmest and most superficial state of
      human consciousness, and we are not discussing that sort of awareness
      here. Human consciousness flows through various degrees and grades
      from the center of consciousness, and systematically going back to
      the source of consciousness within is the purpose of meditation.

      The mind is in the habit of identifying itself with the objects of
      the world, and it does not become aware of internal states as long as
      it remains in its dissipated condition. But with meditative
      discipline, the mind starts traveling inward toward the subtler,
      finer levels. When one attains a state of perfect stillness and
      tranquility, that which is beyond the mind reveals itself. Actually,
      nothing is attained in meditation--a meditator simply allows the
      Reality to be revealed through a calm and tranquil mind. Tranquility
      of the mind is an important factor, but more important is breath
      awareness. The first step in the practice of meditation is a steady,
      comfortable, and easy posture. The second step is calm, serene, and
      even breathing. The third is a calm and steady mind; this is the only
      means for experiencing the deeper levels of being. The fourth step is
      control of the conscious mind used during the waking state; this
      control can make one dynamic and creative. In the fifth step, the
      involuntary system as well as a vast part of the unconscious mind,
      including the memory, is brought under conscious control. In the
      sixth step, the mind becomes aware that it is conditioned by time,
      space, and causation. Through prolonged, unbroken concentration and
      the regular practice of meditation, the mind can be trained to remain
      aware of the now, which is an essential part of eternity. This is the
      seventh step in which a superconscious state full of bliss, peace,
      happiness, and wisdom is attained.

      After serious observation and analysis of the workings of the mind,
      we find that the mind forms a habit of being conditioned either by
      remembering past experiences or by imagining future experiences.
      There is no technique that helps the mind become aware of the now
      except that of meditation. Meditation is not a method of allowing the
      mind to roam aimlessly. It is also not something that dawns all of a
      sudden; it is not an instant method, as some lazy and confused people
      think. It is a conscious effort of training the body, the breath, and
      the mind. Meditation should be practiced systematically. No doubt a
      few visions and unusual experiences are possible by practicing
      meditation haphazardly, but it is not possible to attain the fruits
      expected by such methods. If a student practices systematically, it
      will not take much time for him or her to realize the highest state
      of bliss.


      The breath is the bridge or link between the body and the mind.
      Inhalation and exhalation are the two guards of the city of life.
      They remain constantly awake doing their duties during all states--
      waking, dreaming, and sleeping--and their behavior changes instantly
      according to one's thinking. Inhalation and exhalation are the
      vehicles through which the pranas--vital forces--travel in the living
      mechanism. There are many other vehicles described by the scriptures
      that are not important to discuss here, but by close study of the
      behavior of one's breath, one can discover the subtle functions of
      these vehicles. The ancient scriptures say that "A pandit [wise
      person] is one who knows the science of prana." The school of the
      Pranavedins ("knowers of prana") claims that all the activities of
      human life can be converted into divinity, but that this is possible
      only through the mastery of the breath and the prana. There are some
      books in English available on the subject, though many scriptures
      remain untranslated. Some of the ancient scriptures say that the
      pranas are more vital than the mind--"That which moves the mind is
      also a prana."

      The advanced yogis observe that the breath is like a thermometer that
      registers the conditions of the mind and the influence of the
      external environment on the body. Many techniques are explained in
      the book Shiva Svarodaya. Those who have studied breath behavior and
      this science know their mental and physical behavior correctly, and
      their lives are guided by their control of svaras, or life ripples.
      Our breath behavior can warn us of impending illnesses that might
      create disturbances in the body. For example, when the body suffers
      from fever, the nostrils start behaving in a funny way--one of them
      may start flowing excessively or become blocked. In such a condition,
      the respiratory system does not function normally; the lungs, heart,
      and related systems are disturbed, and the mind loses its
      equilibrium. Advanced yogis also use their breath behavior to watch
      the capacity of their minds and bodies, and they control the behavior
      of their breath by various exercises.

      Patanjali, the codifier of yoga science, explains in two aphorisms
      (Yoga Sutras 2:52-53) the spiritual value of pranayama, and he states
      that we can discipline the mind by practicing the science of breath.
      Manu, the prominent ancient lawmaker, also recognized prana as one of
      the important steps in meditation. For hatha yogis, pranayama is also
      important. According to our school of meditation also, breath
      awareness is an important step, after establishing a still and
      comfortable posture, for the awakening of sushumna. Although the word
      sushumna cannot be adequately translated into English, it signifies
      the state of an undisturbed and joyous mind. When the breath starts
      flowing freely and smoothly through both nostrils, the mind attains
      this state of joy and calmness. Such a mental condition is necessary
      for the mind to travel into deeper levels of consciousness, for if
      the mind is not brought to a state of joy it cannot remain steady,
      and an unsteady mind is not fit for meditation. Additionally, one of
      the schools of meditation, which believes in awakening the kundalini,
      says that without awakening the sushumna, deep meditation and the
      awakening of kundalini is impossible.

      The process of awakening the sushumna is possible only when a student
      starts enjoying being still by keeping the head, neck, and trunk
      straight. This means that the student does not allow any uneasiness
      to occur in the three cords along the spinal column--the central,
      sympathetic, and parasympathetic ganglionated cords. The moment one
      starts meditating on the flow of the breath, one starts observing the
      various defects in its flow--such as noise, shallowness, jerkiness,
      and that which disturbs one the most, the pause between inhalation
      and exhalation. Much has been spoken about this in the scriptures,
      but practice makes one increasingly aware of its importance. When one
      starts meditating on the flow of the breath, one finds that such a
      pause distracts the mind. Some of the scriptures say that the pause
      can be expanded; some say that it can be omitted. In the beginning
      one has to go through the exercises of pranayama, and particularly
      the exercises of breath retention. Later one needs more mental
      effort. Those who do not want to do pranayama exercises can still do
      meditation, but without breath awareness a deep state of meditation
      is impossible.


      What should be the object of meditation? Various schools of
      meditation recommend different objects of focus to make the mind
      become one-pointed. These objects may be either concrete or abstract--
      physical objects, sound syllables, mental images, and so on. But none
      of these objects are helpful in the long run if breath awareness is
      not practiced. The mind is in the habit of dwelling on images,
      objects, symbols, ideas, fancies, and fantasies, so merely giving a
      new object to the mind is not going to enable the practitioner of
      meditation to transcend the mind.

      The breath and the mind are interdependent. If one retains the
      breath, one's mind starts becoming one-pointed; if the breath is
      irregular and jerky, the mind is dissipated. After one attains
      steadiness in one's posture, meditation on the breath or breath
      awareness is very natural. But when we do not have patience and long
      to have unusual experiences and to see visions without understanding
      what we want to visualize and experience, then the mind plays its
      usual tricks in bringing forward memories and past experiences,
      mostly in distorted forms. In such cases the mind should not be
      allowed to hallucinate or experience thought patterns coming from the
      bed of memory.

      An untrained and uncontrolled mind experiences many difficulties in
      the attempt to become focused and one-pointed. The usual obstacles in
      the beginning stage of meditation are that the mind habitually runs
      to old grooves; that it broods on the objects of its interest; and
      that it feels tired and starts losing consciousness, making the
      student feel sleepy. But breath awareness strengthens the mind and
      makes it easier for the mind to become inward. It is advisable for
      beginners not to worry about any object of meditation but to simply
      be aware of the breath. This is the simplest, most natural, and most
      essential step for attaining the deepest state of meditation. Those
      students who are prepared for an advanced meditational technique
      realize that breath awareness is important for calming down an
      agitated mind and making it one-pointed. When the mind starts
      following the flow of the breath, one becomes aware of the reality
      that all the creatures of the world are breathing the same breath;
      that there is a direct communication between oneself and the center
      of the cosmos, which supplies breath to all living creatures. As long
      as the center or living unit in human life receives the vital force,
      or prana, through the breath, the body/mind relationship is
      sustained. When this communication is disrupted, the conscious mind
      fails, and the body is separated from the inner unit of life. This
      separation is called death.

      Meditation is a method that helps us to fathom our internal states
      and finally to go to the source or center of consciousness within. It
      is a journey within, and if it is practiced systematically it is not
      difficult at all. Ordinarily the mind remains dissipated with the
      objects of the world, and so when we try to be still physically we
      find that our mind roams toward these various worldly objects. Breath
      awareness helps make our mind one-pointed and inward, thereby
      enabling us to experience levels that cannot normally be experienced.

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