A Soulful breath is defined as
“that state of subtle physical awareness and equanimity where there is thorough knowledge of the functioning of breath, where there is no feeling of owning the breath, where there is no attachment to breath as my breath, and where there is only awareness and knowledge that this is the breath.”
Such a state of subtle physical awareness and equanimity can be attained if we perform our breathing activity or breathing exercises as a SOUL Meditation and as a means to assist us in meditation.
How to Breath
Natural involuntary breathing or breathing exercises should not be done merely for providing nourishment to the body or for keeping the body alive, but for developing the awareness of the subtle-body (the breath) in relation to the mind and for developing neutrality of mind towards the breath. While breathing, we should give attention to training for subtle physical awareness and equanimity. The ultimate purpose of breathing should be to facilitate wholesome mental development.
Using the regular everyday breathing to train the mind may sound a bit uncommon, but remember that all great things are kind of uncommon, but they are great; because they provide great benefits. Using breathing for wholesome mental development is one of those great things.
Soulful Meditation is the first and foremost practical tool for applying breathing to wholesome mental development. Let me explain how.
Object of Meditation
For developing all four elements of SOUL Meditation (Mindfulness, Concentration, Non-reaction and Wise-attention), or, for any mental development activity, we always need an object to focus on, to give attention to, to apply the mind to, etc. We can use our simple natural “Breath” as one of those objects. In fact, we can make it as our primary object of meditation because:
1.Breath is a natural object. It is unadulterated, unmodified, and unmixed, thus providing the purity of object which is an important aspect for maintaining wholesomeness. 2.It is non-religious and non denominational. Thus, it is universal and common to all. 3.Its supply is unlimited and it always accompanies the meditator. 4.It is beneficial even before meditation begins because it provides nutrition and supports physical life. 5.It is quite and does not create any sound or thought. It is neither repulsive nor attractive. It is thus neutral, peaceful, and sublime in its own individual essence. 6.It is the closest link between the body and the mind because it is a bodily as well as a mental formation (see page no. ). It serves as a best portal for understanding how mind and matter condition each other. 7.It is an internal as well as an external object thus providing the totality of observation. 8.It provides access to all levels of mental absorption, from preliminary to advanced (see page no. ). 9.It contributes to the development of equanimity, tranquility, peace, and sublimity right from beginning until the end.
Synchronizing Breath with
Physical Activity for
Efficiency & Profitability
The versatility of breath as an object of meditation is simply incredible. If you use it, you can turn your mundane worldly activities into a powerful meditation, thereby increasing the efficiency and profitability of physical actions, anytime, anywhere, and in any situation. For example, a daily morning walk can be transformed into a beautiful walking meditation if you synchronize the movement of breath with your steps as follows:
As you are walking, move your attention to breathing and become aware of the in-breath and out-breath. Then, move your attention back to the steps. Alternate like this for a few moments to become mindful of breathing and walking. Now, breath-in as you take the step and breath-out as you take the next step. In this way, synchronize the step with each in-breath and out-breath by applying mindfulness to the movement of breath and the steps. As you walk, you will inhale large quantity of outside air which is cooler than the inside temperature of the body. Due to this temperature difference, as you inhale, you will feel a cool sensation in the nostril area. Use this cool sensation to stay focused on your walking activity by concentrating on the sensations as you breathe-in and breath-out. Anchor your attention in the nostril area by constantly feeling the cool sensations there. In this way, develop the elements of mindfulness and concentration and remain in the present moment while walking. If your mind still wanders away to intruding thoughts or worries, do not react, which means, do not get carried away by them and dwell into them. Simply become aware of them and let-go by gently bringing your attention back to the breath. Walk for a few minutes to get a nice body-workout, breathing workout, as well as a mind-workout. Then, change the parameters of synchronizing the breath with the steps. Now, instead of synchronizing each in-breath with one step, use four steps. So, now, you will breath-in continuously for four steps and breath-out continuously for next four steps. You are now taking eight steps for one cycle of breathing. You will thus change your breathing pattern from fast to deep. You will now learn to breathe deeply because you are taking four steps each for in-breath as well as out-breath. Likewise, keep changing the parameters and learn how to breathe fast, deep, slow, etc. You can also learn to retain and suspend the breath (which is very useful in giving a workout to inside organs of your body). Retain your breath by holding it for couple of steps after taking the four steps during inhalation. Similarly, suspend your breath at the end of four steps of exhalation by delaying your next inhalation for two steps. Try different combinations of steps and breaths and get a thorough breathing workout.
Because you are applying the elements of mindfulness, concentration, and non-reaction, your breathing workout is transformed into a mental workout. Instead of simply deriving mundane physical health benefits from walking, you are now getting mental benefits of improved mindfulness, concentration, and non-reaction, without spending extra time. Thus, a simple physical activity became profound because you used breath as a subject of meditation.
Once you are established in this walking meditation, you can apply the element of wise-attention to the whole walking activity to become aware of the fact that, if you meditate while walking, you are able to not only walk for a long time but also enjoy it thoroughly. You can thus apply the four elements of SOUL Meditation to any mundane physical activity by synchronizing the activity with breathing and obtain maximum physical, physiological, and mental benefits without spending extra time! You can thus improve your efficiency and profitability.
Another great example is “meditative driving” in which you apply the same four elements to the activity of driving. If you simply drive to reach from one place to another, then you don’t get much out of it. But, if you concentrate on the movement of breath as you are driving, remain mindful of the speed of car, the yellow lines, the sign boards, etc, not-react to traffic signals, road-rage, road jams, etc, then, not only you reach your destination on time, without a mishap, but also improve mental faculties of concentration, mindfulness, and non-reaction. You may find this a bit too much. But, if there is a strong desire for meditativity, then it is not difficult at all to do all the three meditative activities (mindfulness, concentration, and non-reaction) at once along with the physical activity of driving. Nevertheless, you can always choose just one meditative element (say concentration), become proficient in it, and then add the other elements as you continue the practice while engaged in driving. In any case, whenever you are multi-tasking, your umbrella should always be that pure natural breath. Your refuge, your anchor should always be the breath.
There are several ancient traditions in which breathing exercises (such as pranayamas, tai-chi, etc) are regularly performed. Unfortunately, these exercises have become quite pneumatic because the practitioners and some teachers focus only on physical and physiological aspects and do not apply the elements of meditation. I would earnestly urge to these practitioners and teachers to look beyond.
Using Breath-Awareness as a Safe Haven
Breath-awareness basically means, a. being mindful of in-breath and out-breath as they occur during natural breathing, and b. being focused on the sensations that arise due to the touch of natural breaths as they pass through the nostrils. In breath-awareness, the attention is completely fixed on these sensations. The mind is kind of tied to the triangular area of the nostrils where these sensations arise. It is anchored there. It is as if the mind takes refuge on the island made of the triangular area of nostrils. In breath-awareness, the mind is in a state of letting-go because it experiences the breath as a safe haven.
If you are looking for a place on earth where you can be 100% secured, safe, and sound, you will simply never find it. No matter how much you protect yourself from external elements, you cannot get out of harm’s way until you develop meditativity. You may be driving the safest car or living in an invincible fort, but you can still be harmed if you are not aware of yourself and the surrounding. Breathing awareness makes you aware of yourself and the surrounding by keeping you in the present moment and by providing a panoramic vision through mindfulness of the movement of breath. It keeps the mind focused on the issues at hand and does not allow it to wander by virtue of concentration on the sensation of the breath in the nostrils. It provides much needed equanimity (through the application of non-reaction to cravings and aversion that you might experience), protecting you from unwholesome or harmful reactions.
Whenever you experience fear or anxiety, simply become aware of the breath and stay with the breath, and notice how the anxiety fades away and how quickly you can take care of the situation. Whenever you realize the advent of anger or lust, simply take your attention to the breath and fix it there, and notice how effectively you can deal with the unwholesome driving forces of anger and lust. Whenever you feel you are being swept away by the flood of greed or desire, quickly arouse the mindfulness of breath and concentrate on its touch in the nostrils, and observe how easily you can survive those dangerous floods.
No amount of material things can create a safe haven like the breathing awareness can. No amount of material prosperity can generate emotional stability and safety as much as breathing awareness can.
Practice the following Breathing-Awareness-Meditation daily for at least 15 minutes in the morning and evening. This meditation has many steps which you may not be able to cover in one sitting. So, start with the first couple of steps, become proficient in it and then add another step and so on. Increase the time period as you add more steps to your meditation.
Sit in a comfortable posture and review the benefits of breathing awareness which we just discussed.
Then, establish your mindfulness in the entire nostrils area. Take a long in-breath and out-breath with intention for developing concentration. Become aware of the breaths by feeling their touch in the nostril area.
Continue taking long in-breath and out-breath until you become aware of in-breath, out-breath, and the gap between the two. This awareness should be so distinct that the in-breath, out-breath, and the gap between the two are experienced as three separate events. These three events are three separate phenomena of consciousness which are jointly referred to as “breathing.”
Now, take a short in-breath and out-breath with intention for developing concentration. Become aware of the “shortness” of breaths by feeling the duration of their touch in the nostril area.
Continue taking short in-breath and out-breath until you become aware of in-breath, out-breath, and the gap between the two. This awareness should be so distinct that the shortness of in-breath, the shortness of out-breath, and the gap between the two are experienced as three separate events.
Go back to taking long in-breaths and out-breaths, and this time around, become aware of the length of the in-breath (its beginning, middle, and end) and the length of the out-breath (its beginning, middle, and end). Continue until you are thoroughly aware of the length or the extent of the breaths.
Follow with short in-breath and out-breath and become aware of the length of the in-breath (its beginning, middle, and end) and the length of the out-breath (its beginning, middle, and end). Continue until you are thoroughly aware of the length or the extent of the breaths.
Alternate between long breaths and short breaths and thoroughly establish the awareness of breathing in terms of its arising, extent (shortness or length), suspensions (gaps), and ceasing.
If your attention is hijacked by any thoughts arising in the mind, you may forget to observe the breath and simply flow with the thoughts. However, sooner or later, when you realize that your attention has run away, gently bring it back to breathing without aversion. Do not strive or crave attention. Do not develop aversion for non-attention if you cannot bring back the attention to breathing quickly. Simply keep bringing your attention back to breathing whenever it sways away. If you just cannot do it, if you just cannot concentrate, let go knowingly. Put down your attempt of concentrating for some time knowingly. Refresh yourself (by taking a short walk outside or by reading some inspirational spiritual texts) and start again knowingly. The key is to know or remain aware of everything that is happening without reacting.
Now, reduce the area of focus. Instead of nostrils, now focus on the small confined area below the tip of nose and above the upper lip. Repeat steps 2 through 8 for the reduced area of focus.
Now, breathe normally without intentionally taking long or short breaths. Continue to simply observe normal breath as it comes and goes. Observation of breath means feeling its touch in the area of focus just below the nostrils and just above the upper lip. At this stage, breathing normally and naturally without any conditioning is important. Let the thoughts come and go. There will be some thinking going on. There will be some reactions. However, do not develop aversion to them. Simply keep coming back gently to the awareness of natural breathing.
Notice how breath changes with changes in concentration levels. Notice how it becomes harsh and fast if thoughts of worries or anger arise while concentrating. Notice how it becomes soft and slow if worries and anger are replaced with ‘letting go’ and with compassion. Notice how the same effect can be achieved by intentionally making the breath soft and slow. This way, understand the link between the mind and the breath (body). Also, understand how movement of thought (or simply thought) is reflected in the movement of breath and vice versa.
Notice how breathing pattern changes if the attention is taken away by a feeling of pain in a specific part of the body; Notice how pain increases if attention is brought back to the painful area; Notice how pain reduces if attention is taken away from the painful area by letting-go. Also notice how pain becomes less intense if attention is brought back to breathing with an attitude of letting-go.
Step 13: Continue the practice ardently and consistently for increasing periods of time.
How to Purify and Transcend the Breath
Following specific SOUL Meditations should be practiced so that the unwholesome root elements of Greed, Hatred, and Delusion are removed from the mind in relation to the breath. Eradicating these unwholesome root elements in relation to the breath is same as purifying and transcending the breath, which is same as attaining a Soulful breath.
Understanding Breath as a Bodily-Phenomenon
Once you have developed certain level of breath-awareness (Steps 1 through Step 13 above), apply it to a session of physical exercise. Observe and feel the breath movement, its rhythm, its length, and its volume with respect to body movements. Feel its coarseness or softness. Feel each inhalation, exhalation, retention, and suspension of breath. Observe the changes in the breath with respect to body movements. Notice how you feel differently when you inhale and when you exhale. Notice how sublime exhalation is compared to inhalation. Notice the sense of balance during the suspension of breath. In this way, first, experientially understand various coarse characteristics of breath in relation to the body.
After the physical session is over, sit down in a comfortable posture, and, again, observe and feel the breath, its movement, its rhythm, its length, and its volume as you naturally breathe. At this time however, feel the breath with respect to the nostril area and not with respect to gross body movements (since there is no body movement). Feel the coarseness or softness of breath in the nostril area. Feel each inhalation, exhalation, retention, and suspension of breath with respect to the nostril area. Then, observe the changes in the breath with respect to induced subtle movements in your backbone, neck, and hip areas. These subtle movements can be induced by simply straightening the backbone or lifting the hips or locking or unlocking the neck, etc. Notice how you feel differently when you inhale and when you exhale. Again notice how sublime exhalation is compared to inhalation. Notice the sense of balance during the suspension of breath. In this way, experientially understand various subtler characteristics of breath.
With sustained practice, you will begin to know your body and breath in terms of their interdependence and interconnectedness. You will understand how body conditions the breath and how breath conditions the body. You can then apply this wisdom to overcome unfavorable bodily conditions by using body for breath and breath for body. For example, if your breath is shallow, you will know how to make it forceful by moving certain body area in a particular way. If your body is weak, you will know how to use the breath in a forceful, deep or shallow, and rhythmic manner to strengthen the body.
With regular and ardent practicing of this meditation, a stage will come when you will experientially understand that breath is nothing but a “bodily phenomenon” which comes and goes in dependence of the body. The ultimate reward comes when this experiential understanding removes the subtle physical delusion and turns into the wisdom of selflessness. The awareness that the breath is simply a material/bodily phenomenon eventually dawns. You then experientially understand that it is the body that breaths itself! You realize that there is no “You” who is breathing or that the breath is not “yours.” You experientially understand that, all along, there has been no “breath-taker.” You are awakened by the fact that your intimacy and attachment to breath was responsible for creating the delusion of a breath-taker. When this happens, you can say that you have attained a Soulful breath in relation to the body.
In eastern traditions, I have heard the word “Prana (Life)” being used for breath. Does Prana mean breath? Or, is there a difference between the two?
Understanding Prana as a Life-Phenomenon
Breath and Prana (Life) are closely related but they are not quite the same.
There is a gross physical breath (Shwasa) because there is body. Without body, there is no breath. Breath is responsible for respiration which is a bodily phenomenon. Therefore, breath is a bodily formation. It is rooted in the body.
The traditional word Prana means “life,” and “life” itself means “a phenomenon of maintenance and sustenance (see page no. )” Since breath sustains the body, we can say that it is Prana- the life of the body. However, breath itself is not Prana but simply an outward and gross manifestation of Prana.
Let us now look at subtler aspect of Prana. For this, we have to first understand the phenomenon of Karma. Assuming that there is some understanding of karma (see page no. ), we can say that, “karma sustains the mind just as breath sustains the body.” Since Karma sustains the mind, we can say that it is the Prana (the life) of the mind. However, Prana itself is not karma but simply an inward manifestation of karma. Thus, Prana (the Life) is not only related to breath but also to karma. It is not only a subtle material phenomenon but also a subtle non-material phenomenon. Therefore, it can be considered as the boundary condition, or, a horizon condition between the mind (non-matter) and the body (matter). In other words, Prana can be understood as a phenomenon of material life as well as mental life (see Figure 19.1). Or, the word Prana (Life) can be understood simply as an expression for the life phenomenon – the phenomenon of vitality and sustenance.
You are saying that “Prana” is basically a life phenomenon. Then what is life energy or life force?
You are asking this question because you are trying to make “something” out of the phenomenon of ‘Life.’ Just understand ‘Life’ or Prana as the phenomenon which vitalizes and sustains body and mind.” That’s all there is to it. There is nothing mystical about the phenomenon of ‘Life.’
Words such as “energy” and “force” are widely used by scientists and materialistic thinkers to denote life phenomenon for variety of reasons. I have purposely not used these words, because, over time, they have developed material as well as mystical connotations. Since the beginners are mostly materialistic in nature and tend to think in terms of “things” and “substances,” they can be easily misled by these connotations about the real meaning of Prana or “Life.”
The word Prana is as insignificant as the words “energy” and “force.” These are all just words and they are used as simple indicators of the life phenomenon. They are like a map which only represents a territory on paper but is not the territory itself. The territory can be understood only by traveling through it and experiencing it. Therefore, it is best not to limit our understanding through mere words. (See Figure 19.2)
I guess I should not get trapped by various words. I should rather try to experience Prana to understand what it really means. Can u tell me how to do that?
The practice of Pranayamas (Breath-Prana-awareness: Steps 1 through 16 plus Steps 17 through Step 24 given below) is a way to understand Prana through meditative experience. In these practices, the breath (Shwasa) is used as a doorway, a portal, to enter the realm of Prana. The breath is extended, refined, thinned, expanded, and rarefied to penetrate subtler and subtler aspects of Prana until the entire phenomenon of life is understood thoroughly. The experiential understanding, “the wisdom of Prana” comes through awareness, non-reaction, wise attention, and concentration applied to the movement or stillness of breath and its variations as in extending, refining, thinning, expanding, and rarefying the breath. There are many ways of doing it. In any case, it is difficult to understand Prana without the awareness of breathing. Therefore, the practicing of Steps 1 through Step 16 is necessary to build a foundation for the following meditation.
Developing Awareness of Prana
Sit in a comfortable posture with an erect spine so that you remain alert and undisturbed by physical pain for an extended period of time. Become aware of the act of breathing itself. Firmly ground yourself in this mindfulness of breathing. If necessary, observe yourself as a third person, an outside awareness that is grounded in front of your body. Or, become aware of the breathing by feeling the touch of the breath in the entire nostril area or in the upper lip area situated just below nostrils. The important thing is to become firmly grounded in the mindfulness of breathing.
Take a long in-breath and out-breath for a few minutes to develop and maintain awareness of the entire length of the long breath during inhalation and exhalation. Then short in-breath and out-breath for a few minutes to develop and maintain awareness of the entire length of the short breath during inhalation and exhalation.
After a few practice sessions of long-breath and short-breaths, you will begin to feel the physical as well as mental calmness. You will also notice that the length of the long-breath automatically begins to shorten due to physical and mental calmness. As the breath shortens, it also becomes finer and subtler. Establish yourself in the awareness of this fine and subtle breaths to such an extent that you feel the breath not only in the nostril area but in the entire body. At this stage, you will experience the breath itself as the whole body. In other words, you become totally engrossed in the breath to such an extent that you experience your entire body breathing and not just the nostrils. If this does not happen even after dedicated practice, then, take short fine breaths with an intention to feel the breath in the whole body. Train yourself to experience the breath in the whole body by intentionally breathing for it. Sooner or later, you will experience the breath in the whole body.
When you experience the breath in the whole body, you are experiencing the Prana (the Life) of the body. You are experiencing Pranic breathing. The distinct features of this Pranic experience are:
1. Feeling the breath independent of the left or the right nostril; as if there are no nostrils but just the subtle breath passing through the middle of your being.
2. Feeling of exhilaration and lightness in the body.
Continue Pranic breathing and now become aware of its movement- the arising and passing away of the Pranic breath. Become distinctly aware of the beginning, the middle, and the end of each Pranic in-breath and out-breath. Become aware of the gap between the end of the in-breath and the beginning of the out-breath. Do not react to the exhilaration and lightness of the body. Do not take away your attention from the movement of Pranic breath. Give wise attention to the movement of Prana and understand it as a dynamic phenomenon.
Notice how the movement of Pranic breath changes if your awareness shifts from the Pranic breath to feeling of any pain or to an intruding thought. Notice how it becomes coarser and faster if you dislike the pain or if you react with craving or aversion to an intruding thought. As soon as you realize this digression, gently bring back the awareness to breathing. Intentionally take longer (and then shorter), finer, and rhythmic breaths to calm the breath and to fetch back the Pranic breathing. Notice how the intention and awareness changes the coarser and faster breath into finer and rhythmic breath. This way, understand how Pranic breathing conditions the mind and how mind conditions Pranic breathing. Thus, understand Pranic breathing as a link between the mind and body.
Continue this finer and subtler Pranic breathing with awareness of its movement. Now, intentionally breathe-in and out to further refine it. Intentionally breathe to experience happiness and bliss. With ardent and continuous practice, a stage comes when there is the experience of bliss with each Pranic breath. This experience is beyond the body. Understand this experience of bliss as a mental feeling that is born out of the volition (karma) coupled with the established awareness, certain degree of concentration, and the acquired wisdom. Notice and understand how this bliss energizes and sustains the awareness. Notice how it vitalizes the awareness. Through this experience, understand how volition- the karma, gives rise to the Prana which sustains and maintains the awareness throughout the meditation. Understand how breath and Prana are simply body-mind or mind-body phenomena. Understand that beyond these phenomena, there is nothing else, there is really no ‘You’ who is breathing or providing life; there is no outside entity that is giving life. Understand that there is just that breath, there is just that Prana, and there is just that awareness of it.
Then, contemplate like this: “I know that I have been sitting here for quite some time, and, during this time, I have been able to sit, breathe, feel, and perceive throughout this meditation. My body has not collapsed. The body seems to have been sustained and maintained throughout this meditation due to breathing. What would have happened to body if the breathing had ceased completely for a long time? The body would have died. This means the breath has been responsible for the sustenance and maintenance of the body throughout this meditation. In other word, the breath has served as the Prana (Life) of the body. Let me then understand this breath as the outward expression of Prana (Life) and let me understand this Prana (Life) as the phenomenon of “material life.”
Continue this contemplation further like this: “This meditation and contemplation have been possible due to “volition” to meditate and contemplate, and due to mental phenomena of sensation, feeling, perception, and attention which arise with it. What is it that sustains and maintains all these mental phenomena for such a long time? It must be the Prana (Life), because, sustenance and maintenance are the functions of Prana (Life). Where did this Prana (Life) come from? It obviously came from the current volition (Karma) to meditate and this current volition must have been “sustained” by the stored-up volitional formations (stored-up Karma). What would have happened to mind if the volition had ceased completely. There would have been no mental activity, which means, the volition has been responsible for the sustenance and maintenance of the mind throughout this meditation. In other words, the Karma has served as the Prana (Life) of the mind. So, let me now understand the Karma as that which has inwardly manifested as Prana (Life) and let me understand this mental Prana as the phenomenon of “mental life.”
With regular and ardent practicing of such contemplation and meditation, a stage will come when you will experientially understand that Prana (Life) is nothing but a body-mind phenomenon which comes and goes in dependence of the body and mind. The ultimate reward comes when this experiential understanding removes the subtle physical-mental delusion and turns into the wisdom of selflessness. The awareness that Prana (Life) is simply a body-mind phenomenon eventually dawns. You then experientially understand that it is the body-mind that sustains and maintains itself. You realize that there is no “You” or someone else who is providing life to the body-mind. When that happens, you can say that you have attained a Soulful breath in relation to the Life-phenomena.