Anapana Sati, meaning mindfulness of breathing (“sati” means mindfulness, “ānāpāna” refers to breathing) is a basic form of meditation taught by the Buddha. According to the Buddha’s teaching in the anapanasati Sutra, practicing mindfulness of breathing meditation as a part of the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the removal of all defilements (kleśas) and finally the attainment of Nibbana. Buddha‘s teaching was based on his own experience in using anapanasati as part of his means of achieving his own enlightenment. However, mindfulness of breath should be practiced along with mettā bhāvanā so one does not withdraw from the world and lose emotional attachment and compassion (Kamalashila 1996).
The anapanasati Sutra is specifically about the mindfulness of in-and-out breathing. It recommends the practice of ānāpānasati meditation as a means of cultivating the seven factors of awakening: mindfulness, discernment, and persistence, which leads to rapture (pīti), then to calm (sukha), which in turn leads to concentration and then to equanimity (ṣanti). Finally, the Buddha taught that with these factors developed in this progression, that the practice of ānāpānasati would lead to release or nirvana.
Anapanasati meditation is normally practiced either in conjunction with vipassanā meditation, with zazen, or zen meditation in the soto Zen tradition (shikantaza). However, before the meditator can use vipassana, the meditator must first develop enough concentration using anapanasati meditation to be able undertake vipassana meditation.
The practice of anapanasati varies. Typically, to begin, one needs to sit in a comfortable position, with the back and neck straight. It is also helpful if one can find a comfortable and peaceful environment.
Breathe naturally, without attempting to change the length or the depth of the breath. If the breath is short, then observe that the breath is short. If the breath is long, then observe that the breath is long.
While breathing, the meditator trains the mind to be sensitive to or focused on various things, and calming or steadying various things. The meditator trains in breathing in sensitive to one or more of: the entire body, rapture, pleasure, the mind, or mental processes, and then breathing out sensitive to this thing. The meditator trains in breathing in focusing on one or more of inconstancy, dispassion, cessation and relinquishment, and then breathing out focusing on this thing. The meditator trains in breathing in steadying, satisfying or releasing the mind, and then breathing out steadying, satisfying or releasing the mind.
Tutors will explain that an untrained mind constantly has thoughts interrupting one’s focus. Like the waves in the ocean, thoughts arise, and they slowly fall away. If one disregards the thoughts, they slowly wither and disappear. On the other hand, if one pays attention, then soon one is lost in a web of thoughts.
In this tradition there are two types of thoughts: thoughts from the past and thoughts about the future. It is said that when left unattended, the mind will flit from one thought to another, wandering aimlessly. There are thoughts which bring happiness, and there are thoughts which bring sadness.
Practitioners are tutored to avoid being disrupted by passing thoughts and to nudge themselves into concentrating on the breathing once again.
Practitioners may follow four stages:
- Count the breath at the end of exhalation
- Count the breath at the beginning of inhalation
- Focus on the breath without counting
- Focus only on the spot where breath enters and leaves the nostril/upper-lip area
- (Kamalashila 1996)
Stages of anapanasati
Formally, there are sixteen stages — or lessons — of anapanasati which are divided into four tetrads. The first four steps involve focusing the mind on breathing, which is the body-conditioner (kāya-sankhāra in Pali). The second tetrad involves focusing on the feelings (vedanā), which are the mind-conditioner (citta-sankhāra). The third tetrad involves focusing on the mind itself (citta), and the fourth tetrad focuses on “the truth” (dhamma). (Compare right mindfulness.)
Any meditative session using anapanasati should start at the first stage, continue with the second state, and so on, in sequence. If the session ends at a given stage, then at the next meditative session one should start again at the first stage.
- Kamalashila (1996). Meditation: The Buddhist Art of Tranquility and Insight. Birmingham: Windhorse Publications. ISBN 1899579052.
- Mindfulness with Breathing by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu. Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1996. ISBN 0-86171-111-4.
- Breath by Breath by Larry Rosenberg. Shambhala Classics, Boston, 1998. ISBN 1-59030-136-6.