Anapanasati (Mindfulness of the breath) is used in Zen, but it usually isn’t a main practice.
The Caodong school focuses on Silent Illumination practice, which does use breath work a little at first. The Linji school focuses on gong-ans. Later, hua tou practice became a part of both schools.
But there’s something to be said for anapanasati. First off, it’s the oldest Buddhist meditation practice, and the Anapanasati Sutta lays out 16 concise steps that naturally take us from suffering to freedom from suffering.
Some people call anapanasati Samatha practice as opposed to Vipassana (which they equate with satipatthana practice). That’s a steaming pile of horse shit. In fact, for hundreds of years, the terms Samatha and Vipassana were barely used in Buddhism. They were popularized by the complicated Tiantai school.
I reject them both. Toss ’em in the dumpster and set the dumpster on fire. Then kick it off a cliff into a sink hole. Chalk it up to a sticky skillful means that the West just can’t help getting stuck on.
That’s the thing with Buddhism: if we get attached to a teaching or method, then we have to throw it away. That’s why Buddhism has kept evolving for thousands of years. That’s why it’ll keep evolving. We tend to underestimate how skilled we are at clinging to things.
Even though anapanasati isn’t orthodox Zen, there’s no reason why it can’t be. It’s such a simple practice that can bring so much joy and ease into life, and we desperately need more of that in the world.
Some teachers say that practice isn’t about joy and bliss, that it’s about seeing our True Nature and things as they are. I think that’s definitely the case, but just because it isn’t about joy and bliss, doesn’t mean it isn’t about them either. A person can still turn about directly and see their True Nature while cultivating a little happiness.
For the most part, I’m sticking with traditional anapanasati practice with the same amount of stages. I did play with the first four a little since no two sources (like this one and this one) agree on which is which. So, I went with my experiences. Sometimes, I’ll also unintentionally skip Stage Two and go to Stage Three, Four, or even Five. Each sit is different, I try to roll with the changes.
Anapanasati is deceptively simple. We just find a quiet place to sit and set a posture. We can sit however we like, but the main guideline is to sit up straight since our minds tend to wander when we’re slouching. Also, slouching is shitty for the back.
My teacher recommends having a “plan” ahead of time. Instead of sitting down and fumbling with our posture, we sit with a posture already in mind and just do it. I think that’s great advice.
The healing breath. I like starting with the healing breath too (breathing in while counting to five, holding it for five, breathing out counting to five). You can do that for as long as you like.
Some teachers say that we shouldn’t even move onto anything else until we’ve mastered the healing breath, but this is your practice, not anyone else’s.
If you just feel the need to do it a few times to relax, that’s fine. If ya want to do it ten times before you get started, that’s cool too. If you want to stick with it until you can do it for a half an hour at a time without losing count, that’s great as well. Never blindly follow someone else’s practice—not even mine. Experiment a little.
Body scan. After the healing breath, I sometimes do a body scan. Breathing naturally, we focus on the top of our heads. You might feel a little tickle on your scalp when you get it. After resting with that for a bit, smoothly move attention to the forehead, like it’s a cloth gradually moving down your body. Notice if there’s tension or ease. We’re not judging it, tension isn’t bad and relaxation isn’t good—we’re just paying attention. That’s the kind of attitude we need throughout anapanasati practice as well.
No good, no bad, no past, no future. That’s just an attitude though, there’s no need to make it into a belief system.
Then we move down to the eyes. Then the nose and cheeks. Then the mouth and jaw. All the way down to the feet. Once you get the hang of it, you can do it pretty fast. I’ll even play with it sometimes, moving attention here and there.
This is all from a first-person perspective. It’s easy to go into a kind of third-person mode when meditating, as if we’re somehow outside of what it is we’re focusing on.
No, practice is always from a first-person point of view. We’re not sitting and imagining that we’re focusing on our hands or belly, or breath, we’re sitting and focusing on them. It’s important to catch yourself when you go into third-person mode because that perception prevents us from experiencing things directly.
After the feet, try to bring awareness to the whole body. Still no judging and no expectations. Just sitting there with the whole body, as the whole body, like sitting under a blanket.
Stage One: The Breath
In this entry, I’m gonna go over the first five stages of anapanasati. That’s more than enough to get started with it.
Now let’s gradually move attention to the breath. We’re breathing naturally, nothing forced, but if you do force a long breath here and there, don’t worry too much about it.
The only stipulation is that we’re breathing in through the nose (unless you’re congested) and breathing from the abdomen. Our bellies should rise with each inhale, and fall with each exhale. Regardless of how we’re used to breathing, this is the way our bodies were designed to breath. The more oxygen we can get, the clearer and more alert our minds are gonna be.
You’ll probably feel the breath easier in certain parts of your body more than others. Just watch the whole breath for a moment and look for where you feel it the most. Is it in your nose? Above the lip? Maybe your abdomen?
Wherever you feel it the most, that’s where we plant attention. That’s our anchor both on the cushion and in day-to-day life. If our thoughts start to wander, or if we start to get carried away by one of the Eight Winds, if we have our anchor then we can make it.
So, the breath. This is where a lot of other techniques drift from anapanasati. We’re asked to just observe the breath and be mindful of whether it’s inhale or exhale, long or short, warm or cool. Whenever we start to drift from it, we just smoothly bring attention back to focusing on and studying the breath.
This analysis isn’t intellectual—it’s direct and experiential.
Recently, teachers have added, “Noting,” to breath focus. That’s because the Anapanasati Sutta says things like, “Breathing in long, the monk observes, ‘This is breathing in long.’ Breathing in short, the monk observes, ‘This is breathing in short.'” The Sutta uses that kind of language for all of the exercises.
That probably wasn’t literal advice. When breathing in long, we’re sitting and experiencing that long breath as it is: long. The same goes for if it’s short or if it’s warm or cool, in our out. There’s no labeling, we’re not literally thinking, “Long breath, short breath; inhale, exhale.”
If the mind wanders from the breath, we’re not thinking, “Thinking, thinking.” Because that’s dumb and it’s part of that flaming dumpster pile we kicked off a cliff earlier.
It adds an unnecessary mental tax to the practice and prevents us from really growing intimate with what it is we’re focusing on. This is all about intimacy, being intimate with what is—that’s how we come to directly understand what is. When you’re having sex, you’re not thinking, “This is sex, this is sex. That’s sweat, that’s panting.” You’re just having sex.
The only thing labeling is gonna do is show you how scattered and undisciplined your mind is, and that’s just gonna scatter it more.
Don’t be dumb, just practice.
From this point on, there’s some disagreement between teachers. People asked, “When are we ready to move on to the next step?” and various monks gave different answers.
I just move on when I move on. Natural.
Stage Two: The Whole Body
As we concentrate on just breathing and we’re mindful of the quality and nature of the breath, attention eventually starts to involve the whole body until we feel each fiber’s connection to the breath.
This is cool because the two are intimately connected. The breath keeps the body alive, and a living body breathes. Neither can exist without the other, so really they’re not-two.
If you notice itches, tingles, aches, etc. that’s fine. Just focus on them for a moment, watch them change, then move back to the breath. If something starts to ache beyond your tolerance threshold, tolerate it a little more before shifting positions to relieve it. I like sitting or doing something just past the point of, “I can’t do this anymore,” before stopping. This teaches endurance, patience, and diligence. Of course if you have some kind of medical condition that’s related to the discomfort, do whatever you need to do.
Stage Three: Bodily Fabrications
After awhile, you might start to trip out a bit. Sometimes my body feels like it’s lighter than air, sometimes I feel like I’m turning or facing the opposite direction that I really am. Occasionally it’ll feel like the body expands to fill the universe. This is all normal. Just stay anchored with the breath through it all.
Stage Four: Calming Bodily Fabrications
As we move through that, the body seems to settle down. You might go from the whole body experience you had earlier to a no-body kind of experience as the body grows totally relaxed. Sensations will start to grow minimal, and your mind will wander less.
Some people literally do start to drop off the body and it feels like they’re sitting and breathing as open space, others will just find nothing annoying or distracting about the body. This can also change from sit to sit.
Stage Five: Bliss
Then, gradually, you might notice a sense of bliss start to appear within in the body. Sticking with the breath, this bliss starts to grow. It fills up the body, it moves beyond the body and seems to fill the room. It moves beyond the room until it seems boundless and timeless.
This is where anapanasati really starts to help with daily life. We suffer a lot because we look for bliss, well-being, and satisfaction in impermanent, interdependent things. If we rely on something impermanent for our well-being, then our well-being is going to be impermanent as well.
With the arising of bliss during anapanasati, we’re stumbling on something that doesn’t rely on anything outside of ourselves. We’re literally just sitting there, breathing, and experiencing a deep, powerful euphoria for no reason than us just sitting there.
Whenever we’ve breathing we can experience this to one degree or another. That means we don’t have to go out looking for people and things or thoughts to make us feel good.
This isn’t emphasized in most Zen schools, or in modern Buddhism in general for that matter, but I think it’s a valuable tool. We just have to remember that it isn’t the end all of practice, that’s all. In fact, this is just the beginning.
So when you experience that bliss, let it flow, let it grow. Let it move with the breath, take it as another kind of body, one far more vast than our flesh and blood—though not really. If we’re seeing our physical bodies as they really are, they’re just as vast as this.