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.
Another useful thing our friend can show us is our state of mind. We all know what happens to our friend when we are affected by a strong emotion like anger, fear, excitement, stress and insecurity. What happens to our breath? It moves very, very fast. So it can be a very useful signal, a very reliable signal to show us what is happening in our mind. If we have problems with an emotions like anger, our friend will immediately show to us from the way the breathing moves that we are getting angry. So it can be a very useful signal, as I said, and then if you can listen to the signal, heed the signal, you’ll be able to recover from that anger or whatever emotion immediately.
In the same way when our mind is calm, when our mind is relaxed, when our mind is still, what happens to our friend? The breath also becomes calm. Sometimes it becomes so subtle that you don’t even realise that you are breathing. So if we can learn to make a connection with our friend, the friend will always tell us what is happening in our mind. Some of the friends we have can sometimes be wrong – or maybe most of the time they can be wrong – but you’ll realise this friend is always right, this friend is always reliable.
We are sometimes affected by our thoughts. Most of the time thoughts control us. Here again our friend, the breath, can help us to learn to let go of the thoughts, maybe even for the first time; to learn to control the thoughts rather than allow the thoughts to control us by being with our friend and experiencing the present moment, letting go of the thoughts about the past, letting go of the thoughts about the future.
And related to our thoughts are our emotions. There’s a very strong connection between our thinking, between our thoughts, and emotions. So sometimes thoughts can create emotions, and then what happens is that when we have these emotions we can make them bigger than they really are. Here again, if we can remember our friend immediately it will help us to recover from our emotions. Because if we can spend a few minutes with the breath in such a situation it will help us to find some space in our mind and then that space can help us to recover from whatever emotions we are experiencing. You can experiment with this. You can try it for yourself.
We should try to observe every thought. Can you be conscious of every thought that arises in your mind? And it is very important to learn to observe thoughts without judging them: this is delicate, this is not delicate, this is good, this is bad. Without judging, without giving plusses and minuses, can we just observe the thoughts as they arise and as they pass away?
One important aspect of meditation is learning to experience the present moment, the here and the now. So when we breathe, it is very interesting, we always breathe in the present, we always breathe in the here and the now. Sometimes I like to refer to our breath as our friend. If we make a connection with our breath as a friend, then whenever we think of our friend, our friend will help us to experience the present moment. Whenever we are lost in thoughts about the past and the future, and there is confusion and disorder in our mind, we have only to think of our friend and immediately we can experience the present moment.
A very important aspect of meditation is developing awareness, mindfulness. So here we can use our breath to develop awareness. In Pali this technique is called Anapanasati, developing awareness, mindfulness, in relation to the in-breath and the out-breath. We can use the breath to develop the practice of mindfulness and awareness because we are breathing all the time and the breath is with us all the time. Ajahn Chah, one of the meditation masters in Thailand, has said that if you have time to breathe, then you have time to meditate. So this is the first point why the Buddha might have chosen breathing as a technique for meditation.
I once met a woman who had a terrible temper, anger was her big problem. I gave her a simple suggestion and it worked very well. I told her to carry a mirror in her pocket. And I told her whenever she got angry, please look at the mirror, don’t open your mouth but just look at the mirror. And when she did it she was shocked to see the reflection in it. So whenever she did that she felt bad about how she was looking because she was concerned about her appearance. And there was an immediate recovery from the anger and sometimes she was even able to laugh at her anger.
If you are unable to observe anger at the time that it arises, at least later on you can start reflecting on what happened. So why did I get angry? Why did I use those words? What really made me lose my control? Our failures can become very valuable spiritual friends. And this kind of reflection has to be done in a very friendly, gentle way rather than doing it in a very hard way, beating yourself and unnecessarily experiencing guilt and remorse in relation to what has happened. And then you can forgive yourself: I’m still human, I got angry, but let me see now when I meet that person next week or whatever, how I will be relating to that person. So then you’ll be learning from such experiences, then you can experiment with such situations.
And if we need to have an ideal, the ideal should not be that we will not get angry. The more realistic ideal we can have in relation to anger is, how soon we can recover from that anger? This is the importance of practising awareness in everyday life. So that if you can practise such awareness, if you can have a connection with your breath, then as you are getting angry the breath will tell you that you are getting angry, and with awareness you can notice it and that will help you to recover from that anger.