8. The Basic Formal Anāpānasati Meditation

Revised June 17, 2022

The top 10 posts in this section describe the fundamentals of Buddhist meditation. The rest of the posts in this section discuss meditation subjects. They clarify unresolved questions and help gain samādhi. The first 11 posts should be followed in that order, at least initially.

1. As we discussed in the previous posts of this series, it is important to live a moral life without engaging in the BIG EIGHT in order to achieve the full benefits of meditation. One could start even while making progress on the BIG EIGHT, and these formal sessions will help with those as well.

2. Now let us talk about how to do the correct Ānāpānasati meditation as taught by the Buddha; see, “7. What is Ānāpāna?“.

  • First, pick out a quiet time slot that you can allocate without having to worry about other tasks. Initially, 10-15 minutes a day would be fine and you can extend the time to several hours when the benefits of proper meditation become clear and you start feeling the nirāmisa sukha.

3. Pick out a room away from external disturbances as much as possible. A room that can be darkened and the door can be closed would be ideal. Sit in a comfortable chair with an armrest, and this becomes important when one starts getting into samādhi, because the body could become less rigid and tends to slide off (however, some people tend to “freeze” just like in samādhi statues in the beginning).

  • Anyway, do not make the chair too comfortable because you may fall asleep. With practice, this sleepiness will automatically go away, when the mind starts liking the meditation sessions, i.e., when one of the pañcanīvaraṇa, tiṇa middha, is automatically removed. One comes out of samādhi energized.

4. Sit in the chair with the hands-on lap and eyes closed. What we will be trying to do is to ward off any thoughts of lust, cravings, etc. (kāmacchanda), any thoughts of hate (vyāpāda) in particular, and also any stray thoughts such as on kids or other pending tasks. We want to experience the “cooling down” due to the absence of kāmachanda and vyāpāda, and also to focus the mind on a Dhamma concept. For those who are starting out, it may be good to do the following first:

  • In order to keep the mind from running away, keep saying in your mind, “May all beings be happy and healthy”. Or, you could think about some act of generosity that you did recently. But all of a sudden you may drift to a thought of some type of sensual pleasure (involving any of the senses). Deliberately get rid of that thought and focus the mind back on the original task.
  • If a hateful thought (towards someone or something) comes to mind, forcefully stop that thought as well. Here you should deliberately think good thoughts about that person. It is important to remember that even the vilest person has friends/family that love that person. Sincerely say, “May X be happy and healthy”. Even if you have good reasons to despise that person, it is important to realize that our task is to remove the hateful feelings that WE have. When we do that, in the future we will not generate strong hateful feelings even if someone does something that may appear to be against us.
  • Thinking about the serenity of a Buddha statue helps in the case of both kāmacchanda and vyāpāda (and any stray thought).

5. Once one gets some practice sitting in one place with a focused mind for a little while, one should start meditating or contemplating on Dhamma concepts. It may be a good idea to start with the introductory posts (posts above this post). 

  • After that, one could read one of the posts from the “Key Dhamma Concepts” on the top menu just before the meditation session and then contemplate those concepts; for example, one could think about examples on “anicca“: We cannot maintain anything to our satisfaction over the long term. If you are old enough you have many examples on your own. If you are young, you can still maintain your body, hair, teeth, etc to your liking but when you get to middle age, you will see that it is an impossible task. The easiest is to think about your parents/grandparents and see how their bodies have changed, how they are unable to keep their bodies the way they would like.
  • For this purpose, I have also added new posts on how one can look at the world through Buddha Dhamma in this section. The posts that I have added after the “Myths about Meditation” are good ones to read before the session and then to meditate on those ideas; for example, “A Simple Way to Enhance Merits (Kusala) and Avoid Demerits (Akusala)“. The other three posts below that one may be a bit advanced for some; if so, browse around and find ones that are suitable. Eventually, the key concepts in the “Key Dhamma Concepts” section need to be grasped. I encourage everyone to read the posts in the “Moral Living and Fundamentals” section first.
  • You could actually read any post from any area of the site and use that as a “focal point” on the meditation session later on. Not all sections are relevant to everyone. Different people can get to samādhi focusing on different topics. The only posts that is absolutely necessary are the ones on anicca, dukkha, and anatta. But if they are hard to grasp, one should probably start at the “Moral Living” section. It is a matter of getting used to new concepts. In meditation, one will automatically “drift to samādhi” when the concepts become clear; the mind becomes awake and clear.

6. Inevitably, your mind will try to wander off during the session. Stopping lustful and hateful thoughts is the main task of this formal meditation session. If any distracting thought comes to the mind, DO NOT let it “run wild”; this is what is called “being mindful”. Keep a sharp eye on such stray thoughts and put a stop soon as they surface.

  • The other three hindrances (tiṇa middha, uddhacca kukkucca, and vicikicca) will automatically come down. You will be surprised how refreshed you feel after a “good meditation session”.
  • Initially, it may be hard, but if you are persistent you should be able to see the results within a week to a month depending on the situation with the BIG EIGHT. Those will also gradually diminish too.
  • Once one gets the mind to calm down some, one could start focusing on the good/bad habits that one has, in addition to “taking in” Dhamma concepts.

7. In the Anapānapabba of the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, it says, “..sō satō vā assa sati, satō vā passa sati. Digham vā assasantō digham assasāmi ti pajānāti, digham vā passasantō digham passasāmi ti pajānāti, ……” Here it DOES NOT mean “take long breaths in, expel long breaths out”; rather it means, “get rid of old bad habits, and cultivate the old good habits”.

  • Similarly, the very next sentence (“..rassam vā assasantō…”) is not about short breaths, but about those good habits that you started to work on recently, and those bad habits that started to creep into your mind recently (if there is any).
  • This is why understanding how habits are formed and become āsavā is important; there are several posts on this subject.
  • There is no way that one can purify one’s mind by breathing in/out, even though it can get one’s mind to calm down (samatha). The correct way of doing it does both Samatha and Vipassana together.
  • In the above verse, sati is a very important term; it is not mere concentration, but contemplation with an understanding of anicca, dukkha, and anatta (actually any form of meditation cannot be done effectively without at least some understanding of anicca, dukkha, anatta).

8. The key to success is to do this as often as possible. You do not need to be in a quiet place either, even though it helps especially initially. As you make progress, try to do it while riding the subway or a bus (but not while driving!), while waiting at the doctor’s office, during a lunch break, etc.

9. When one starts on Ariya Bhāvanā, sometimes things may look worse before getting better. It is like trying to cool a hot iron by sprinkling water on it when all that smoke comes out and may appear to be getting worse. But one needs to be persistent. One needs to keep in mind that uncountable beings have attained “cooling down” by having faith in the Buddha.

  • Understanding key Dhamma concepts is key to any type of meditation. Whenever you have time, try to read on different topics. Things will start “falling into place” at some point if it hasn’t yet. From that point on, one will start feeling the joy of Dhamma and will be seeking to clarify things with enthusiasm. It is a good addition to have!

Next, “Key to ānāpānasati – How to Change Character and Habits (Gati)“,  ………..

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