January 15, 2019; revised January 21, 2020
I receive many questions from people who insist that breath meditation “works.” Breath meditation can indeed provide a relief that can be exhilarating for those who have not experienced a “permanent cooling down.” The latter is harder to get and require a determined effort, but will be a permanent solution to the “problem of existential suffering.”
1. Doing breath meditation to achieve a “temporary relief” from the “suffering in this world” is like taking an aspirin or a Tylenol or a sleeping pill to get relief from a headache. If that headache has a root cause in the onset of cancer in the body, then taking aspirins will only allow the tumor to grow. In the same way, breath meditation does absolutely nothing to remove the root causes (greed, anger, ignorance.)
- One needs to get long-term medical treatment to get rid of cancer. Then the headaches will also go away.
- In the same way, to stop future suffering from arising, one needs to remove defilements (greed, hate, and ignorance) from one’s mind. Then all the mental stresses will also go away permanently.
- It makes sense to get a temporary relief 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.
2. The problem here is that many people get “addicted” to 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 kick.”
- Even though breath meditation is not directly harmful like drug addiction, it is dangerous in the sense that 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, and that is a trap. Once people start enjoying jhāna, they even equate that to Nibbāna. I will discuss this later on.
- The Buddha always analyzed a given problem in detail so that one could get a clear picture of the whole situation. So, let us analyze possible causes for the agitation of the mind.
Heating of the Mind Due to Too Many Sense Inputs
3. The mind can focus on only one thing at a time. However, it SEEMS that we can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and also think about concepts all at the same time.
- For example, when watching a movie, we see and hear the film, and also be thinking about the movie plot. If we are eating popcorn, we can touch, smell, and taste popcorn too. So it SEEMS that we are using all six sense faculties “at the same time.”
- But we have that perception of a mind engaged in all at once only because the mind is VERY FAST. It can go back and forth among the six sense inputs at an incredibly fast rate.
- The Buddha said that the mind is the fastest entity in the world.
4. But in the above example, the mind (or more accurately the brain) gets overworked. All those sensory inputs need to be processed by the brain, which is like a computer. You may have seen that a computer can get “overheated” when it is running too many applications at the same time.
- That is why we cannot watch movies all day long. If we watch even two movies without a break, we are likely to get a massive headache. The brain gets overloaded.
- So, this is one kind of stress that we feel. It is simply due to the mind (and the brain) trying to process too many sensory inputs.
- There is another, more important, way that a mind can get stressed. That may not be obvious to many. Let us discuss that now.
Heating of the Mind Due to Greed, Hate, and Ignorance
5. Do you remember the last time when you got outraged? 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).
- Therefore, “ātāpī sampajānō” means “remove the fire or heat from one’s mind by being aware of the ‘san‘ or “immoral tendencies.”
- When someone can get to the “ātāpi sampajānō” state, one feels calm and “cooled down”; see, “Kāyānupassanā – The Section on Habits (Sampajānapabba)“ and other sections in “Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta.”
6. When one acts with greed, “heating up” still happens, may be to a lesser extent than when one is angry. As a kid, when I was stealing something, I felt heated and uncomfortable.
- The same is true when one acts with ignorance too. One is not confident 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 “vicikiccā” in Pāli. Because one does not know, one is not confident, one becomes anxious, and the body gets heated up.
- On the other hand, do you remember how you felt when you made someone happy, either via a good deed or word? You cooled down; it felt good. Didn’t you feel the opposite of when you got mad?
7. Thus, when one gives up acting with hate, greed, or ignorance, one becomes less agitated, at ease, with a sense of peacefulness. One can enhance this calmness by also engaging in moral deeds – this is sila or ethical conduct.
- Giving up an immoral lifestyle and engaging in moral activities is the basis for getting to Nibbāna, the ultimate “cooling down.”
- As one can see the benefits of cooling down, one will avoid actions done with hate, greed, and ignorance. And one will be looking forward to doing acts of goodwill, generosity, and mindfulness.
- Avoiding greed, hate, and ignorance is the same as preventing dasa akusala.
Mind Can Handle Only One Sense Input at a Time
8. In #3, #4 above, I mentioned that the mind could focus on only one sensory input at a time. Let us take an analogy to see why that is so.
- We all have seen a “ring of fire” at some circuses. The performer rotates a long stick with a burning torch, and it looks like a “ring.” Yet, we know that it is not a “ring,” but it is just the fast rotation that “fools our eyes” to be seen as a continuous ring.
- The light is coming from only one point on the circle at a given time. But we see it as a continuous ring; see #13 of “Do I Have “A Mind” That Is Fixed and “Mine”?“.
9. In the same way, at a given instant, only one sensory input is processed by the mind: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, or contemplating. They come in packets of about a few milliseconds (a millisecond is a thousandth of a second).
- Yes. Scientists have done systematic studies in recent years to confirm this picture that the Buddha explained in Abhidhamma 2500 years ago!
10. For example, we may see a snapshot of the movie at a given instant. A few milliseconds later, we hear a word, followed by the brief smelling of popcorn. And so on. They go through the mind very fast, and we FEEL LIKE we are experiencing all those at the same time.
- The mind can sort all those different sensory inputs and present a cohesive continuous picture. That is the magic of the mind.
- Even just the movie itself is a series of static pictures projected on the screen at a fast rate, above 20 frames per second. If we slow down the projector, we will be able to see individual frames very similar to a picture taken by a camera.
- A movie camera takes 24 frames a second. When projected on the screen, it appears to be continuous.
11. That is why the Buddha said that the mind is like a magician. The fast mind can give us the impression of experiencing many things at the same time. But it is a series of discrete events happening VERY FAST.
- All those sensory inputs need to be processed by the brain for the mind to experience them.
- If there are too many, that leads to stress in mind and the brain. That is why one could get a headache by watching too many movies or television programs.
- Even if it is just one sense input (say, looking at an attractive person and generating lustful thoughts), that itself can lead to stress (even though most people do not feel it that way). Here the real stress is masked by one’s anticipation of sense pleasures.
Why Breath Meditation “Works” on Temporary Basis
12. Now we have discussed three things that come in to play.
- A mind (with the help of the brain) can process only one sensory input at a time. But it handles a large number of such inputs in a second so that we have the illusion that we are experiencing many things at the same time.
- If the mind is experiencing many sense inputs (called ārammana in Pāli) — like watching a movie and eating popcorn — both the brain and mind get stressed out or get “overheated.”
- Another type of “heating” happens with greedy, hateful, and ignorant thoughts. Even if one focuses on one thing (say anger on someone), the mind gets heated internally, and that is called “tāpa” in Buddha Dhamma.
13. When we focus the mind on the breath, we are forcing the mind to “stay focused on just feeling the breath.” The mind is staying on one “thought object” and not running back and forth among many. Also, the brain virtually has no “load” to process.
- That also avoids the more subtle yet essential “heating up” is due to greedy, hateful, or ignorant thoughts from coming to the mind.
14. Now we can see why “breath meditation works” temporarily.
- It disengages the mind from too many sensory inputs and forces them to stay on one task. That is the easiest to see.
- Furthermore, it also removes the possibility of sensual, hateful, or even ignorant thoughts arising in mind. The mind is OCCUPIED with one harmless sense input: monitoring the breath or something like that.
- You can prove this for yourself by focusing the mind on the up and down movement of your belly. In mundane kasina meditation, yogis focus the mind on a kasina object. Since most of you are used to breath-meditation, it may appear to be better. But if you spend time doing any other type, like kasina meditation, you will get used to it.
Breath Meditation: Addictive and No Long-Term Benefits
15. As you can see, “breath meditation” can be useful in solving the first problem: It can keep the mind on a single focus.
- While it can find a temporary solution to the problem of “internal heat generation” (tāpa) by SUPPRESSING the root causes (greed, hate, and ignorance), it is not able to permanently remove them.
- Then they can be “triggered” (or made to come to the surface) when a strong sense input (like seeing an attractive figure). The “agitation” will be back.
- There is a second problem: When we have those lurking in our minds, we tend to do dasa akusala too, which will also lead to more suffering in the future.
- Therefore, REMOVING (instead of just suppressing) greed, hate, and ignorance will benefit in the short term as well as in the long run.
- That permanent solution is in the real Ānāpāna bhāvanā in Buddha Dhamma.
16. As we discussed earlier, someone in pain feels the need to keep taking pain relievers to avoid the pain. A drug addict feels the need to keep taking drugs to maintain the “high.”
- In the same way, a person engaged in breath meditation feels the need to do it regularly to “maintain the calmness.”
- If one does this all day long for several days (while at a retreat), one starts feeling a “sense of great relief.”
- But when one leaves the retreat and gets back to the “rat race,” all those agitations come back.
- I know several people who go to retreats to get “refueled” regularly. Getting addicted to breath meditation can be harmful in that way. One is wasting precious time in doing something that will only provide a short-term solution AND is preventing one from undertaking a long-term PERMANENT solution.
The Better Solution – Real Ānāpāna/Satipaṭṭhāna
17. The better way is to systematically get rid of the tendencies for such greedy, hateful, and ignorant thoughts to come to mind and stay there.
- One cannot accomplish that in a few days. It needs an effort in two ways: First, one needs to understand why greed, hate, and ignorance (dasa akusala) give rise to “heating of the mind” or tāpa.
- At the same time, one needs to live a moral life with minimum burdens. We will live only for about 100 years at most. Is there a point in amassing huge sums of money or luxurious things, only to leave all that behind at death?
- The more things one “owns,” the more stressful it will be one’s mind. One’s mind will be burdened all the time.
- Of course, that does not mean one should endure poverty and suffering. We should ALWAYS minimize suffering. That is the “middle way” prescribed by the Buddha.
18. That seems to be simple enough, and it is. But there are many more details on how one can increase this “relief” or “cooling down” or “ātāpa.” But it is a step-by-step process.
- The relief from this “heat” or “burning” does happen, especially after one gets on the Noble Path by comprehending the root causes of this stress.
19. Many people tell me that they cannot focus their minds and do a mediation session without concentrating on the breath. If they try to meditate on a Dhamma concept, the mind tries to fly off in different directions.
- The solution is simple. It is not essential to do “formal meditation sessions” in the beginning.
- If you read the Sabbāsava Sutta (MN 2) carefully, you will see that bhāvanā is essential only after the Sōtapanna stage (“āsavā dassanā pahātabbā“), to get to the Sakadāgāmi stage and beyond (“āsavā bhāvanā pahātabbā“).
- What is needed is “contemplation” and “examination,” which is vimansa (also related to dhammavicaya sabbojjanga), though that could also be called “bhāvanā.”
20. In any case, it is good to understand and practice the real Ānāpāna/Satipaṭṭhāna bhāvanā. That means what to take into the mind and what to be rejected from the mind. That can be done even before getting to the Sōtapanna stage.
- The most important first thing is to learn true Buddha Dhamma and live a moral life (sila) while engaging in meritorious deeds like giving and helping out others in need.
- This will help maintain one’s focus on learning Dhamma concepts first. Then one would be able to do formal meditation sessions without the help of breath meditation.