by Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri)

Some Closing Reflections On Breath Meditation

breath meditationChapter 8 of The Breath of Life

The past, present, and future history of breath

When relative existence, individual or cosmic, begins, there is a chain of manifestation. First there is an out-turning of Consciousness, an Expansion which is known as the Chidakasha, the Space (Ether) of Consciousness. Immediately there arises within this infinite Expanse a movement that is the Cosmic Breath or Prana. From that comes all that exist in the realm of Relativity. As Swami Vivekananda wrote: “Just as Akasha [Ether] is the infinite, omnipresent material of this universe, so is this Prana the infinite, omnipresent manifesting power of this universe.”

The cosmos and the individual are manifested by the same process: ever-expanding prana/breath. As we enter into relative consciousness through the expansion of breath, just so can we enter back into transcendent Consciousness through the profound awareness of breath that occurs in meditation. Tracing the breath back to its source, the yogi discovers within himself both Power and Consciousness. Through meditation he experiences the subtle states of consciousness inherent in the breath. This procedure is spoken of in the Katha Upanishad: “The self, though hidden in all beings, does not shine forth but can be seen by those subtle seers, through their sharp and subtle intelligence” (Katha Upanishad 1.3.12).

This means that consciousness is the root of breath–is innate in breath. Breath, then, is the direct means to return our awareness to the inmost level of our being and put us into touch with consciousness itself. At the same time, breath (prana) rules all the levels of our being and has the ability to infuse all those levels with the highest spiritual consciousness, to spiritualize every bit of us. For the essence, the root, of breath is both energy and consciousness. Awareness of the breath right away centers our awareness in the highest, etheric level of our being. It returns our awareness to its source, gathers up and centers every other aspect of our being in spiritual consciousness.

Breath, Prana, pervades all our bodies, corrects, directs, and empowers them to perfectly and fully manifest all their potentials–which is the root purpose of our relative existence. Through Breath Meditation practice all the aspects of our being are brought into perfect fruition and enabled to merge back into their Source in the state of absolute liberation. Breath Meditation, then, embraces all the aspects of our existence–not only the highest part–and is supremely practical.

In Indian mythology it is said that the realm of Vishnu is guarded by two doorkeepers who escort the questing soul into the throne room and then stand at the door to guard against intruders. This is a symbol of the inhalations and exhalations which lead the yogi into the world of higher consciousness, into the Divine Presence. The breath leads us into the realm of the Chidakasha, the Space of Consciousness, and keep guard there against the intrusion of distracting thoughts and states of mind, seeing that nothing disturbs our inner quest.

It cannot be overemphasized that the breath is the object that transfers our awareness into the subject: consciousness itself. Other objects draw our attention outward, into the experience of them, and perpetuate the loss of self-awareness which is our root problem. They are not only incapable of producing the awareness of pure consciousness, they make it impossible. This should not be forgotten.

The Truth

The source of the breath is the Truth–our essential being: spirit. Yet the inhalations and exhalations are like two fires between which we must walk untouched. Although called “breath meditation” is is really consciousness meditation, freeing us from the duality of breath–or rather taking us to the place where the breath is both one and unmoving (consciousness). Like Brahman we must “breathe, breathless” as the Rig Veda describes. Meditation is a reunion/reuniting of the breath, for it is its duality that has led us into the experience of duality. Again, it is not transcending the breath but returning to Original Breath which is inseparable from Original Nature.

Letting go

In pure meditation “doing nothing” and “letting go” is the only right thing to “do.” As already quoted, “absolute fading away is Nirvana.” That is, totally letting go and releasing all things and states that arise during Breath Meditation is the relinquishment which the Visuddhimagga says is so essential to the seeker after liberation. And it tells us a most interesting spiritual fact: relinquishment is both a giving up and an entering into. “Relinquishment as giving up, gives up materiality. The entering of the mind into the cessation of materiality, into Nirvana, is relinquishment as entering into,” says the Patisambhida-magga.

Enlightenment is the revelation of what has ever been the essential nature of our selves. It has always been present with us, and does not need to be attained, only revealed (or recognized). For this reason correct meditation is simply the dropping of unreality which automatically is a movement into Reality. “So it is called both relinquishment as giving up and relinquishment as entering into.”

Our purpose

Shankara stated that the practice of yoga “has right vision alone for its goal, and glories of [external] knowledge and power are not its purpose.” Spirit-consciousness alone is true and real. The Katha Upanishad (2:3:8, 9) makes this very clear. First it speaks of what God (Brahman) really is, saying: “Brahman [is] the all-pervading spirit, the unconditioned, knowing whom one attains to freedom and achieves immortality. None beholds him with the eyes, for he is without visible form. Yet in the heart is he revealed, through self-control and meditation. Those who know him become immortal.”

Brahman is pure spirit, beyond all phenomena, beyond all relative existence or relative experience (objective consciousness). Brahman is not perceived by the senses, inner or outer (“none beholds him with the eyes”), yet He is revealed in the core of the yogi’s being in meditation. “Those who know him become immortal” because they experience their identity with the immortal Brahman.

The Katha Upanishad describes the nature of meditation in which Brahman is realized. “When all the senses are stilled, when the mind is at rest, when the intellect wavers not–then, say the wise, is reached the highest state. This calm of the senses and the mind has been defined as yoga. He who attains it is freed from delusion” (Katha Upanishad 2:3:10, 11).

So here are the characteristics of meditation which the upanishad calls “the highest state”: 1) the senses are stilled, 2) the mind is at rest, 3) the intellect wavers not. Then the idea is really driven home by the upanishad: “This calm of the senses and the mind has been defined as yoga.” Shankara affirms that the seeker of spiritual freedom is seeking nothing from meditation “other than the special serenity of meditation practice.” This state is also called sthirattwa by the yogis. “He who attains it is freed from delusion.” When Yogiraj Lahiri Mahasaya was asked: “On which deity do you meditate?” He simply replied: “I meditate on sthirattwa”–the serenity produced by meditation in which he ever dwelt, and of which he was the embodiment.

Not a “thing”

If we touch the water in a flowing stream, remove our hand, and then touch it again, we are not touching the same water at all. In the same way the flowing breath is not the same but different each time we breathe. So we are not fixing our attention on a “thing” at all, but on an utter intangible. The breath, then, is not really an “object” of meditation, but the means by which our inner witness-consciousness naturally and spontaneously becomes the object in Breath Meditation.

Breath Meditation (Anapanasati) is so subtle and seemingly “nothing” to the unpracticed, that it is no wonder Buddha considered at first that he could not teach anyone what he knew, since it was so opposite to their usual external physical experience.

The best koan

The breath is the best “koan” to ponder (be aware of) for it is not a question or a problem, but the answer.

Going far

At the beginning, when you are not used to turning your awareness deeply within, at the conclusion of meditation you may feel as though you are coming back from a long way, or as if you were awakening from a deep sleep. This is because your mind is not used to the transition from outer to inner and back to the outer awareness. In time, with practice, this will cease to be so marked, and your mind will make the transition almost immediately without any particular sensations. Right now, however, your mind is learning a completely new way to function, is exploring new territory, and the contrast may be more apparent than it will be later on. I mention this so you will not think after a while that you are not going as deep in meditation as you did before.

Distraction and boredom

Do not worry about the possibility of being bored in doing such a practice (non-practice, actually). You will not be bored if you practice correctly. If, however, you do find yourself feeling restless, dissatisfied, or bored, then gently increase your awareness of the nosetip and of the breath moving there. For if your attention slips away from the tip of the nose and/or the breath, then distraction, boredom, or disorientation will definitely occur.

During the practice of Breath Meditation the ego-mind may begin to scream that we are doing nothing, that we must do something. But we are doing something. We are doing nothing–no thing. We are being purely aware, which is the state of our spirit. The ego-mind will not accept this, though, and will insist that we do something to make our meditation effective, or devotional, or sacred. “You cannot just sit like a knot on a log,” it will tell us. Knots on logs do not merge back into their pure consciousness, but we do, and that is the only truly effective, devotional, or sacred act.

Breath Meditation is not just non-doing, it is undoing–the process of Nirvana.

Inner negativity

Impulses to negativity or foolishness, whether mental or physical, exist in our minds in the form of samskaras or vasanas. (Samskaras are impressions in the mind produced by previous actions or experiences, and vasanas are bundles or aggregates of similar samskaras.) Worries and anxieties about these samskaras and vasanas in the form of “sins,” “temptations,” and “wrong thinking” torment a lot of seekers. Even more futile is obsession with “getting rid of the ego.” For the yogi who regularly practices meditation and arranges his inner and outer life so as to avoid their counteracting or conflicting with his practice there is no need for such self-torture. Speaking of these negative and troublesome things, Shankara confidently says: “they are dissolved along with the receptacle, the chitta…. Because they have no effect, they are not given attention, for when a thing is falling of itself there is no point in searching for something to make it fall.” I. K. Taimni says: “As the object of meditation continues to fill the mind completely there can be no question of emptying the mind.”

Next Chapter in The Breath of LifeAfterword: It Is All Up to You