Here is a very nice guide to doing Insight Meditation. You will notice how important the breath is in these teachings. The breath is the key that opens the door to the Present. As you delve deeper into this pure Mindfulness, you will experience thoughts and emotions from the past arising from your subconscious and deeper. I look at this as a cleansing of the mind one thought and emotion at a time. If you ever experience some discomfort when an unpleasant memory arises, just return your focus to your breath. Your breath is your anchor to calmness and is always right there. Practice this every day and the results will amaze you in time. Best wishes!
What To Do When the Mind Wanders Away?
In spite of your concerted effort to keep the mind on your breathing, the mind may wander away. It may go to past experiences and suddenly you may find yourself remembering places you’ve visited, people you met, friends not seen for a long time, a book you read long ago, the taste of food you ate yesterday, and so on. As soon as you notice that you mind is no longer on your breath, mindfully bring it back to it and anchor it there. However, in a few moments you may be caught up again thinking how to pay your bills, to make a telephone call to you friend, write a letter to someone, do your laundry, buy your groceries, go to a party, plan your next vacation, and so forth. As soon as you notice that your mind is not on your subject, bring it back mindfully. Following are some suggestions to help you gain the concentration necessary for the practice of mindfulness.
In a situation like this, counting may help. The purpose of counting is simply to focus the mind on the breath. Once you mind is focused on the breath, give up counting. This is a device for gaining concentration. There are numerous ways of counting. Any counting should be done mentally. Do not make any sound when you count. Following are some of the ways of counting.
a) While breathing in count “one, one, one, one…” until the lungs are full of fresh air. While breathing out count “two, two, two, two…” until the lungs are empty of fresh air. Then while breathing in again count “three, three, three, three…” until the lungs are full again and while breathing out count again “four, four, four, four…” until the lungs are empty of fresh air. Count up to ten and repeat as many times as necessary to keep the mind focused on the breath.
b) The second method of counting is counting rapidly up to ten. While counting “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten” breathe in and again while counting “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten” breathe out. This means in one inhaling you should count up to ten and in one exhaling you should count up to ten. Repeat this way of counting as many times as necessary to focus the mind on the breath.
c) The third method of counting is to counting secession up to ten. At this time count “one, two, three, four, five” (only up to five) while inhaling and then count “one, two, three, four, five, six” (up to six) while exhaling. Again count “one, two, three, four fire, six seven” (only up to seven) while inhaling. Then count “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight” while exhaling. Count up to nine while inhaling and count up to ten while exhaling. Repeat this way of counting as many times as necessary to focus the mind on the breath.
d) The fourth method is to take a long breath. When the lungs are full, mentally count “one” and breath out completely until the lungs are empty of fresh air. Then count mentally “two”. Take a long breath again and count “three” and breath completely out as before. When the lungs are empty of fresh air, count mentally “four”. Count your breath in this manner up to ten. Then count backward from ten to one. Count again from one to ten and then ten to one.
e) The fifth method is to join inhaling and exhaling. When the lungs are empty of fresh air, count mentally “one”. This time you should count both inhalation and exhalation as one. Again inhale, exhale, and mentally count “two”. This way of counting should be done only up to five and repeated from five to one. Repeat this method until you breathing becomes refined and quiet.
Remember that you are not supposed to continue your counting all the time. As soon as your mind is locked at the nostrils-tip where the inhaling breath and exhaling breath touch and begin to feel that you breathing is so refined and quiet that you cannot notice inhalation and exhalation separately, you should give up counting. Counting is used only to train the mind to concentrate on one point.
After inhaling do not wait to notice the brief pause before exhaling but connect the inhaling and exhaling, so you can notice both inhaling and exhaling as one continuous breath.
After joining inhaling and exhaling, fix your mind on the point where you feel you inhaling and exhaling breath touching. Inhale and exhale as on single breath moving in and out touching or rubbing the rims of your nostrils.
4. Focus you mind like a carpenter
A carpenter draws a straight line on a board and that he wants to cut. Then he cuts the board with his handsaw along the straight line he drew. He does not look at the teeth of his saw as they move in and out of the board. Rather he focuses his entire attention on the line he drew so he can cut the board straight. Similarly keep your mind straight on the point where you feel the breath at the rims of your nostrils.
5. Make you mind like a gate-keeper
A gate-keeper does not take into account any detail of the people entering a house. All he does is notice people entering the house and leaving the house through the gate. Similarly, when you concentrate you should not take into account any detail of your experiences. Simply notice the feeling of your inhaling and exhaling breath as it goes in and out right at the rims of your nostrils.
As you continue your practice you mind and body becomes so light that you may feel as if you are floating in the air or on water. You may even feel that your body is springing up into the sky. When the grossness of your in-and-out breathing has ceased, subtle in-and-out breathing arises. This very subtle breath is your objective focus of the mind. This is the sign of concentration. This first appearance of a sign-object will be replaced by more and more subtle sign-object. This subtlety of the sign can be compared to the sound of a bell. When a bell is struck with a big iron rod, you hear a gross sound at first. As the sound faces away, the sound becomes very subtle. Similarly the in-and-out breath appears at first as a gross sign. As you keep paying bare attention to it, this sign becomes very subtle. But the consciousness remains totally focused on the rims of the nostrils. Other meditation objects become clearer and clearer, as the sign develops. But the breath becomes subtler and subtler as the sign develops. Because of this subtlety, you may not notice the presence of your breath. Don’t get disappointed thinking that you lost your breath or that nothing is happening to your meditation practice. Don’t worry. Be mindful and determined to bring your feeling of breath back to the rims of your nostrils. This is the time you should practice more vigorously, balancing your energy, faith, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom.
Suppose there is a farmer who uses buffaloes for plowing his rice field. As he is tired in the middle of the day, he unfastens his buffaloes and takes a rest under the cool shade of a tree. When he wakes up, he does not find his animals. He does not worry, but simply walks to the water place where all the animals gather for drinking in the hot mid-day and he finds his buffaloes there. Without any problem he brings them back and ties them to the yoke again and starts plowing his field.
Similarly as you continue this exercise, your breath becomes so subtle and refined that you might not be able to notice the feeling of breath at all. When this happens, do not worry. It has not disappeared. It is still where it was before-right at the nostril-tips. Take a few quick breaths and you will notice the feeling of breathing again. Continue to pay bare attention to the feeling of the touch of breath at the rims of your nostrils.
As you keep your mind focused on the rims of your nostrils, you will be able to notice the sign of the development of meditation. You will feel the pleasant sensation of sign. Different meditators feel this differently. It will be like a star, or a peg made of heartwood, or a long string, or a wreath of flowers, or a puff of smoke, or a cob-web, or a film of cloud, or a lotus flower, or the disc of the moon or the disc of the sun.
Earlier in your practice you had inhaling and exhaling as objects of meditation. Now you have the sign as the third object of meditation. When you focus your mind on this third object, your mind reaches a stage of concentration sufficient for your practice of insight meditation. This sign is strongly present at the rims of the nostrils. Master it and gain full control of it so that whenever you want, it should be available. Unite the mind with this sign which is available in the present moment and let the mind flow with every succeeding moment. As you pay bare attention to it, you will see the sign itself is changing every moment. Keep your mind with the changing moments. Also notice that your mind can be concentrated only on the present moment. This unity of the mind with the present moment is called momentary concentration. As moments are incessantly passing away one after another, the mind keeps pace with them. Changing with them, appearing and disappearing with them without clinging to any of them. If we try to stop the mind at one moment, we end up in frustration because the mind cannot be held fast. It must keep up with what is happening in the new moment. As the present moment can be found any moment, every waking moment can be made a concentrated moment.
To unite the mind with the present moment, we must find something happening in that moment. However, you cannot focus your mind on every changing moment without a certain degree of concentration to keep pace with the moment. Once you gain this degree of concentration, you can use it for focusing your attention on anything you experience–the rising and falling of your abdomen, the rising and falling of the chest area, the rising and falling of any feeling, or the rising and falling of your breath or thoughts and so on.
To make any progress in insight meditation you need this kind of momentary concentration. That is all you need for the insight meditation practice because everything in your experience lives only for one moment. When you focus this concentrated state of mind on the changes taking place in your mind and body, you will notice that your breath is the physical part and the feeling of breath, consciousness of the feeling and the consciousness of the sign are the mental parts. As you notice them you can notice that they are changing all the time. You may have various types of sensations, other than the feeling of breathing, taking place in your body. Watch them all over your body. Don’t try to create any feeling which is not naturally present in any part of your body. When thought arises notice it, too. All you should notice in all these occurrences is the impermanent, unsatisfactory and selfless nature of all your experiences whether mental or physical.
As your mindfulness develops, your resentment for the change, your dislike for the unpleasant experiences, your greet for the pleasant experiences and the notion of self hood will be replaced by the deeper insight of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness. This knowledge of reality in your experience helps you to foster a more calm, peaceful and mature attitude towards your life. You will see what you thought in the past to be permanent is changing with such an inconceivable rapidity that even your mind cannot keep up with these changes. Somehow you will be able to notice many of the changes. You will see the subtlety of impermanence and the subtlety of selflessness. This insight will show you the way to peace, happiness and give you the wisdom to handle your daily problems in life.
When the mind is united with the breath flowing all the time, we will naturally be able to focus the mind on the present moment. We can notice the feeling arising from contact of breath with the rim of our nostrils. As the earth element of the air that we breathe in and out touches the earth element of our nostrils, the mind feels the flow of air in and out. The warm feeling arises at the nostrils or any other part of the body from the contact of the heat element generated by the breathing process. The feeling of impermanence of breath arises when the earth element of flowing breath touches the nostrils. Although the water element is present in the breath, the mind cannot feel it.
Also we feel the expansion and contraction of our lungs, abdomen and low abdomen, as the fresh air is pumped in and out of the lungs. The expansion and contraction of the abdomen, lower abdomen and chest are parts of the universal rhythm. Everything in the universe has the same rhythm of expansion and contraction just like our breath and body. All of them are rising and falling. However, our primary concern is the rising and falling phenomena of the breath and minute parts of our minds and bodies.
Along with the inhaling breath, we experience a small degree of calmness. This little degree of tension-free calmness turns into tension if we don’t breathe out in a few moments. As we breathe out this tension is released. After breathing out, we experience discomfort if we wait too long before having fresh brought in again. This means that every time our lings are full we must breathe out and every time our lungs are empty we must breathe in. As we breathe in, we experience a small degree of calmness, and as we breathe out, we experience a small degree of calmness. We desire calmness and relief of tension and do not like the tension and feeling resulting from the lack of breath. We wish that the calmness would stay longer and the tension disappear more quickly that it normally does. But neither will the tension go away as fast as we wish not the calmness stay as long as we wish. And again we get agitated or irritated, for we desire the calmness to return and stay longer and the tension to go away quickly and not to return again. Here we see how even a small degree of desire for permanency in an impermanent situation causes pain or unhappiness. Since there is no self-entity to control this situation, we will become more disappointed.
However, if we watch our breathing without desiring calmness and without resenting tension arising from the breathing in and out, but experience only the impermanence, the unsatisfactoriness and selflessness of our breath, our mind becomes peaceful and calm.
Also, the mind does not stay all the time with the feeling of breath. It goes to sounds, memories, emotions, perceptions, consciousness and mental formations as well. When we experience these states, we should forget about the feeling of breath and immediately focus our attention on these states–one at a time, not all of them at one time. As they fade away, we let our mind return to the breath which is the home base the mind can return to from quick or long journey to various states of mind and body. We must remember that all these mental journeys are made within the mind itself.
Every time the mind returns to the breath, it comes back with a deeper insight into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness. The mind becomes more insightful from the impartial and unbiased watching of these occurrences. The mind gains insight into the fact that this body, these feelings, various states of consciousness and numerous mental formations are to be used only for the purpose of gaining deeper insight into the reality of this mind/body complex.
~ From the book: “Mindfulness In Plain English”
by Venerable Henepola Gunaratana