An important insight that can arise in relation to our breath is that we can have moments when we realise that there is only the breathing that is taking place, the rise and the fall of the breath, and that there is no ego, no sense of “I” or “me” that is breathing, but just the process of breathing going on from moment to moment.
This insight which we develop through being open to change and impermanence internally will help us also to be open to changes, the fact of impermanence, when it happens externally. As you know, sometimes we have no control over what is happening inside us and we have no control over what is happening externally, in certain events in our life. Suffering arises when we resist these changes, when we resist impermanence. So if we can really be open to impermanence, and understand the nature of impermanence, this is a very powerful way of overcoming suffering. And as I said, we develop this very important insight: how suffering is created by resisting change and how we can overcome suffering by being open to change and to an understanding of impermanence.
One aspect of vipassana is to experience the fact of impermanence, the fact of change. And when we are aware of the breath, we’ll realise how whatever is happening in our mind and body, including the breathing, changes from moment to moment. So if you are having thoughts you’ll immediately realise how thoughts are arising, how thoughts are passing away. And the same thing becomes very clear with our breath.
Here again, if we can be aware of the sensations we’ll realise how from moment to moment there are varieties of sensations taking place, and again how sensations are changing from moment to moment. So we learn to be open to any changes that are taking place in our mind and body from moment to moment.
In Buddhist meditation there are two aspects. One is the aspect of experiencing calm and tranquillity, which is called samatha. The other aspect is developing vipassana, insight or wisdom. When we are being aware of the in-breath and the out-breath, if we can learn not to react to what is happening then the mind becomes calm and tranquil. And then this technique also helps us to develop wisdom or insight, vipassana.
Our friend the breath shows us about the state of our body. Here again, the way we breathe can indicate to us our state of physical well-being, and also our state of mental well-being. If you can focus attention on the breath sometimes you’ll realise the breathing can be very relaxed, sometimes the breathing can be very deep, and sometimes also shallow. And when you realise that your breathing is shallow it will always show that you are having tension in your body.
It is interesting that our friend will show that when our body is tense how naturally that will create an emotion; it will indicate the connection between feeling tense and our emotions. And one of the ways of letting go of the tension is by using our friend. Sometimes in such a situation, if you can breathe consciously, if you can take some deep breaths, you might be able to relax your mind and body to a great extent almost immediately.