Breath Meditation Is Addictive and Harmful in the Long Run

Many people insist that breath meditation “works.” Breath meditation can provide temporary relief. It is informative to look at how breath meditation temporarily reduces stress. However, it is not a permanent solution to saṁsāric suffering.

January 15, 2019; revised January 21, 2020; rewritten January 19, 2023

Breath Meditation – Not Addressing the Root Causes

1. Doing breath meditation to get “temporary relief” from the “suffering in this world” is like taking an aspirin, Tylenol, or a sleeping pill to relieve a headache. If that headache has a root cause in the onset of cancer in the body, then suppressing the symptoms with aspirins will only allow the tumor to grow. In the same way, breath meditation does nothing to remove the root causes (greed, anger, ignorance) of saṁsāric suffering.

  • One needs to get long-term medical treatment to get rid of cancer. Then the headaches will also subside with those treatments. Thus, addressing the root causes will solve all problems!
  • In the same way, to stop future suffering from arising, one must remove defilements (greed, hate, and ignorance) from one’s mind. During that process, mental stresses will also subside gradually. Even though this is not a “quick fix,” the gains will last long too.
  • It makes sense to get temporary relief from a symptomatic headache using a pill, but one MUST start working on a long-term solution for the root cause of cancer.
  • In the same way, it is OK to do a bit of breath meditation to deviate the mind from a stressful situation, but it is unwise to use it as a long-term solution. Some people do it for hours, which is a complete waste of time.

2. The problem here is that many people are “addicted” to the breath meditation, just as a drug addict starts an addiction by getting used to “taking a pill” to get to an “ecstatic state of mind” for a few hours.

  • The problem is that the drug addict will have to keep increasing the dose with time to get the “same effect.” 
  • Even though breath meditation is not directly harmful like drug addiction, it is dangerous because it will shift the focus from the primary goal of a permanent solution to the “problem of suffering.”
  • Furthermore, breath meditation can lead to anariya jhāna if one can avoid sensory pleasures. Once they start enjoying jhāna, some even equate that to Nibbāna. It becomes a trap.
  • The Buddha analyzed a given problem in detail to provide a clear picture. So, let us analyze the causes of the agitation of the mind.
The Root Causes of All Suffering

3. The concept of Nibbāna is straightforward: “rāgakkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo—idaṁ vuccati nibbānan”ti. See “Nibbānapañhā Sutta (SN 38.1.)

  • However, rāga, dosa, and moha are not always present. They remain as hidden defilements or anusaya. One must follow the Noble Eightfold Path to remove such anusaya from the mind; see “Āsava, Anusaya, and Gati (Gathi).”
  • As long as the seven types of anusaya are not removed, a strong sensory input can “awaken” one or more of the hidden anusaya and make one’s mind perturbed; see #6 of the above post.
  • How can focusing the mind on breath remove any of the anusaya?
Can Breath Meditation Get Rid of Anusaya from a Mind?

4. When pressed with this question, some say, “one needs to do vipassanā following breath mediation.” However, the “Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118)” directly says: “Ānāpānassati, bhikkhave, bhāvitā bahulīkatā cattāro satipaṭṭhāne paripūretiCattāro satipaṭṭhānā bhāvitā bahulīkatā satta bojjhaṅge paripūrenti. Satta bojjhaṅgā bhāvitā bahulīkatā vijjāvimuttiṁ paripūrenti.

  • Thus, if one engages in the correct Ānāpānassati (and not “breath mediation”), there is no need to do an additional vipassanā step! Ānāpānassati fulfills Satipaṭṭhāna, Satta Bojjhaṅga, and leads to Nbbāna (vijjā vimutti.)
  • This fact, by itself, confirms that “breath meditation” is not Buddha’s Ānāpānassati.
  • The problem is that even the translator did not understand that; thus, the wrong English title for the sutta! “Mindfulness of Breathing (MN 118)
  •  Breath meditation is NOT a Buddhist meditation. Hindus practiced breath meditation even before the Buddha. See “Pranayama.”
Summary of Ānāpānasati

5. Ānapāna: “Āna” or “taking in” and “Āpāna” for “discarding.” Depending on what is “taken in”/”discarded,” it can lead to different effects at three levels.

Level 1: For those who have no understanding of Buddha Dhamma: Ānapānasati means focusing the mind on “breathing in and out.” Of course, that is a crude form of “meditation” for calming the mind. It cannot cleanse a mind—no connection to Paṭicca Samuppāda.

Level 2: Ānapānasati can be done with “Āna,” or “taking good morals and good habits in,” and “Āpāna,” or “discard bad morals and bad habits.”
             – This step is necessary to set up the background to comprehend the Deeper Buddha Dhamma (Four Noble Truths, Paṭicca Samuppāda, and Tilakkhana) leading to Nibbāna.

Level 3: Noble version of Ānapānasati to be practiced to get to Nibbāna after comprehending the Four Noble Truths, Paṭicca Samuppāda, and Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta.) That requires learning the correct versions of those from someone who has understood them.           
         – In this version, “Āna” or “taking in” is the Kusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda that leads to Nibbāna. ” Āpāna” or “to discard” is the Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda that sustains the rebirth process (Samsāra). A summary is in “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.”

It Is Unwise to Spend Time on “Breath Meditation”

6. There is no question that “breath meditation” can calm a mind and lead to a “state of peace and calm.” If one can abstain from sensual pleasures, it can lead to anariya jhāna too.

  • An excellent example from the Tipiṭaka is Devadatta, who remained a bhikkhu until his death, even though he attempted to take the life of the Buddha. Before that, Bhikkhu Devadatta attained anariya jhāna and mighty iddhi powers too. Using those iddhi powers, he impressed King Ajātasattu. After his attempts on Buddha’s life, he lost the ability to get into jhānās and iddhi powers and was reborn in a niraya (lowest of the apayas.) 
  • A reasonable summary is in the “Theravāda portrayals of Devadatta” section in the Wikipedia article “Devadatta.”
  • Furthermore, yogis like Āḷārakālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta attained arupāvacara jhānās and were born in the arupāvacara Brahma realms. But since they had not removed even a single anusaya, they will return to the human realm and may even be reborn in apayas. Until at least the diṭṭhi anusaya is removed from the mind, rebirth in an apaya remains open. Ditthi anusaya is removed at the Sotapanna stage, and all seven types of anusaya are removed only at the Arahant stage.
  • That is why it is unwise to spend time cultivating “breath meditation”!
  • But it is informative to look at why people get “addicted” to breath meditation.
How Does “Breath Meditation” Lead to a “Peaceful Mindset”?

7. One aspect of the stress generated is due to too many sensory inputs. 

  • The brain must process all those sensory inputs before sending that information to the seat of the mind (hadaya vatthu.) Thus, the brain processing sensory data coming through the six senses is analogous to a computer processing data stream; see “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”
  • Scientists say the brain uses 25% of the energy produced by food. All that energy goes into sensory processing. Just thinking hard about something can be stressful to the brain.
  • For example, when watching a movie, we also hear the dialogue and think about the movie’s plot. If we are eating popcorn, we can touch, smell, and taste popcorn too. The brain must process all those sensory inputs. The brain gets overworked from watching too many movies or television programs. We will likely get a massive headache if we watch even two movies without a break.

8. During a typical day, we get bombarded with sensory inputs. The brain needs to process all that information. An overworked day can lead to a massive headache.

  • Breath meditation stops the mind from exploring all other sensory inputs. Focusing the mind on one ārammaṇa relieves all that stress on the brain. But it does not do anything to eliminate anusaya.
  • There is also a second way that “breath meditation” can bring temporary relief.
Suppression of Heating of the Mind Due to Greed, Hate, and Ignorance

9. Another type of “heating” happens with greedy, hateful, and ignorant thoughts. Here, not only the brain but the mind itself can become stressed. Even if one focuses on one thing (say anger on someone), the mind gets heated internally, which is called “tāpa” in Buddha Dhamma.

  • Do you remember the last time you got angry? How did that feel? You get hot. The whole body becomes hot and agitated; blood pressure goes up; the face becomes dark because the blood becomes dark (By the way, this is clear evidence that the mind can affect the body).
  • This “burning up” is called “tāpa” in Pāli (pronounced “thāpa”; තාප in Sinhala) and is due to greed, hate, and ignorance. “Ātāpi” means the opposite, “cooling down via getting rid of those defilements.”
  • That is the “fire” discussed in detail in the “Ādittapariyaya Sutta (SN 35.28)“.

10. When one acts with greed, “heating up” still happens, but to a lesser extent than when one is angry. As a kid, I felt heated and uncomfortable when stealing something at home.

  • The same is true when one acts with ignorance too. One is unsure whether that is the right thing to do; the mind goes back and forth: is this right or wrong? Should I do it or not? That is called “vicikicchā” in Pāli. Because one does not know, one is not confident, one becomes anxious, and the body gets heated up.

11. Focusing on the breath stops both “heating mechanisms” described in #7 through #10. As long as we maintain that “isolation of the mind,” workload on the brain will reduce, and the mind will not get agitated!

  • When people go to “breath meditation retreats,” they do that all day long for several days at a stretch. Thus, by the end of the retreat, the mind seems to be in an excellent “peaceful state.” 
  • Therefore, “breath meditation” is only a temporary solution. (There is no “meditation” involved!) After returning from the retreat, they return to the “rat race” of daily activities. The agitation of the mind comes back, and they look forward to attending another retreat!
  • That is not different from taking aspirin to relieve a headache caused by cancer (see #1 above.)
Correct Ānāpānasati

12. Meditation is all about purifying one’s mind. In the first stage, one must get rid of the wrong views and immoral gati by “taking in good habits (including learning Dhamma)” and “discarding immoral habits.” See “9. Key to Ānapānasati – How to Change Habits and Character (Gati).


13. Despite the explanation above, many people could have difficulty getting rid of the habit of “meditating on the breath.” But it is a harmful habit that MUST BE broken if one is interested in the long-term rewards of stopping the suffering in the rebirth process.

  • It is similar to the situation faced by an alcoholic or a drug addict. Some of them realize it is harmful, but they do not have the willpower to break it. 
  • One solution is to actively learn the correct Buddha Dhamma and gradually reduce the time spent on breath meditation. Once one gets some traction, Dhamma will guide one on the correct path: “Dhammo have rakkhati dhammacāriṁ” means “Dhamma will guide and protect those who follow Buddha Dhamma.”
  • Also, see the summary in #5 above. 
  • Details at “Elephant in the Room 3 – Ānāpānasati.”
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